Arts & Events

Gil Shaham Shines in Bach’s Solo Violin Works

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 15, 2016 - 02:52:00 PM

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are towering monuments of the violin repertoire. As such, they pose a challenge for even the greatest violinists. Gil Shaham, who performed these works on Thursday, April 14, at Zellerbach Hall, felt the challenge so strongly that he waited many years into his illustrious career before beginning to play (and record) these Bach masterpieces. The result, as one might expect from such a consummate musician as Shaham, combines technical mastery and passionate commitment. Playing the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius, Shaham handles the many difficult passages in these works with apparent ease. But we can rest assured that the ease is only apparent, and that Shaham has put a great deal of work and thought into how these sonatas and partitas should be performed.  

For this performance, however, Shaham opted to have his violin artistry accompanied by visual projections created by video artist David Michalek. To my mind this was a mistake. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin need no spiffing up with visual material whatsoever, and any visual accompaniment ends up only being a distraction at best. At worst, it becomes ludicrous. David Michalek’s video contributions combined both the best and the worst. The best were those movements in which Michalek offered slow-motion video footage of dancers moving gracefully to the music. The worst were various segments offering still-lifes of flowers in vases, a human skull (what skullduggery!), and gimmicky uses of slow-motion water inundating and submerging a flowered vase, then, in the final segment of this long concert, reversing the inundation and putting the flowered vase back together again. All this, the best as well as the worst, was simply extraneous. Gil Shaham spoke briefly and very appreciatively of Michalek’s contribution to this performance; but in my opinion the whole visual component was an unwelcome intrusion. 

The Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin were composed by Bach between 1717 and 1720 while he was music director at the court of Prince Leopold in Anhalt-Cöthen. Most of Bach’s compositions from this period were secular works (such as the Brandenburg Concertos) rather than the church music he later composed in such abundance in Leipzig. Sonata No. 1 in G minor opens with a slow, solemn Adagio, then is followed by a striking four-voice fugue marked Allegro, which Bach liked so much he later transcribed it for both organ and lute. This first sonata is then rounded off with a limpid Siciliana and a Presto. The Partita No. 1 in B minor, like all the partitas, offers a suite of dances. However, in this and only in this partita, Bach follows each dance movement with a Double, an elaboration of the basic elements of the dance movement itself. Here the four dances are, in order, an Allemanda, a Corrente, a Sarabande, and a Bourrée. 

After a brief intermission, Shaham returned to play Sonata No. 2 in A minor. This work begins with a movement marked Grave, which offers a set of sweeping scales and chromatically infused harmonies. Next comes a magnificent Fugue, one of the highlights of the entire set as played by Gil Shaham, and which concludes with the letters of Bach’s name (B-flat-A-C-B natural). The third movement is a delightful Andante in C-Major, and this sonata closes with a brisk Allegro. The Partita No. 2 in D minor offers five dance movements – an Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabande, Gigue, and Ciaccona. The latter, another highlight of the entire concert, is a sublime work in itself. Here Bach subjected his eight-measure theme to 64 continuous variations. As Philipp Spitta wrote, “This chaconne is a triumph of spirit over matter such as even Bach never repeated in a more brilliant manner.” Shaham’s playing of this wondrous music was sensational. 

After a second brief intermission, Shaham again took the stage to perform the final sonata and partita of the set of six. Sonata No. 3 in C Major opens with a somber Adagio, followed by a magnificent Fugue, which, like the other fugues in this set, was magnificently played by Gil Shaham, and was a highlight of the concert. This sonata is rounded off with a limpid Largo and a closing Allegro assai in a dance-form. Partita No. 3 in E Major offers an opening Preludio that is yet another highlight of the set. The second movement is a Loure, (the name is derived from an ancient French bagpipe). Then comes a sparkling Gavotte en Rondeau, replete with bouncy music in rondo form. This is followed by two Menuets and a Bourée, the latter of which offers amusing, almost humorous echo-effects, which Shaham played with tongue-in-cheek aplomb. A vibrant Gigue brings this partita, and the concert as a whole, to a rousing close.  

Gil Shamam’s violin virtuosity is exceptional. His interpretation of these Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin outshines most others, including that of Christian Tezlaff, whom I heard in these works a few years ago at Zellerbach. All told, only the incomparable Jascha Heifetz, whom I have only heard in recordings, surpasses Shaham in technical virtuosity and interpretive genius in these Bach works for Solo Violin.