It is a peculiarity of the violin’s history that the most cherished solo works in the repertoire came outside the rough boundaries of the instrument’s “golden period.” The years between 1775 and 1904 saw a remarkable flourishing of the violin canon, in the form of five concerti by Mozart and the five pantheonic concerti by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Beethoven, and Brahms. These latter two also contributed a total of thirteen sonatas for violin and piano that remain essential items of the chamber repertoire.

Yet somehow, even as the violin and its technique were being rapidly transformed and the repertoire vastly expanded, the expressive potential of the unaccompanied violin, established in the eighteenth century and revisited in the twentieth, went largely unexplored. The caprices and études of Niccolò Paganini and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, which helped to drive that technical revolution, are essentially musical party tricks, requiring fantastic digital dexterity but offering little in the way of artistic depth. Not until Eugène Ysaÿe’s six sonatas of 1923 did anything in the solo violin repertoire approach the emotional power of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas. Composed between 1703 and 1720, Bach’s set stands as the exemplar of violinistic polyphony, achieving on a single staff a level of musical complexity previously thought to be impossible. Today the six not only remain a central pillar of the violin repertoire, but have even earned a place among the greatest pieces of music for any instrumentation.

So when a major violinist releases a recording of the complete Sonatas and Partitas, one pays attention. It’s surprising, actually, given the scope of Gil Shaham’s career as a recording and performing artist, that he hasn’t gotten around to a Bach cycle before now. It was more than twenty years ago that Shaham, then the newest young star on the violin circuit, released on one album recordings of the Barber and Korngold concerti that are just about definitive. Today he is the consensus dean of American concert violinists, and most recently the author of a Bach album on the Canary Classics label that is, in a word, strange. Said the master of his latest recordings:

I grew up playing this music slower and hearing performances that were slower. But at some point I realized that if the Menuets of the French Suites or the very famous Minuets from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook fall at a certain clip, then why don’t I play the Menuets of the Third Partita in the same tempo? If you think of how fast the fugue from the Ouverture of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major is performed, why was I playing the Fuga of the G-minor Sonata so slowly? I believe composers often think of violin writing as rapid and brilliant, and in my experience it is rare that a living composer requests that we play slower. So my feeling for the general tempos of this music is faster. It swings better.

Uh-oh. Interpretive experimentation is all well and good, but attempts to mimic or “rediscover” imagined period practice within a modern performing idiom are frequently misguided and occasionally disastrous. Shaham isn’t kidding about his tempi: nearly every movement in the cycle is about 25 to 50 percent faster than the current standard, and some are even more eccentric.

Completing the G-minor fugue in about four minutes to the usual five and a half, he seems to answer his own question: one doesn’t play Bach’s fugues at these tempi because it is practically impossible to do so cleanly. Consider that violinists today are, as a class, more technically proficient than they have been at any other point in history: when Paganini unveiled the last of his twenty-four caprices in 1817, at age thirty-five, a Faustian bargain seemed the only plausible explanation for his abilities. Today, a violinist with any shot at a major career is expected to have mastered all twenty-four by age sixteen. If Gil Shaham can’t play these fugues cleanly at 120 beats per minute, it’s unlikely any of Bach’s contemporaries could have, either.

Beyond even the crass consideration of whether all the notes are “there,” the fugues, when played this fast, totally miss their essential characters.

Beyond even the crass consideration of whether all the notes are “there,” the fugues, when played this fast, totally miss their essential characters. The G-minor fugue, usually a crisp but thoughtful meditation, becomes a scrambling dash to the finish. Its joyous counterpart in C major feels manic, its dovetailed lines whirring by too quickly to be heard—remedied only when Shaham slows down to wrap his fingers around the treacherous clusters of chords that make up so much of this movement, raising further doubts about whether his pace is a realistic one.

Yet even in many of the slower movements, where technical dexterity is less of a concern, Shaham’s interpretations are unsatisfying. The C-major sonata opens with a gorgeous, distant pulse, its progression slowly emerging from the simplest of beginnings. There is no mystery to speak of in Shaham’s treatment—the blooming chords sound unconsidered, as though he’s merely rushing through to get to the end.

Far more effective is the treatment of the E-major Partita, successful in no small part because the tempi are comparatively sane. Shaham’s Preludio is bright and shining—it’s difficult, really, to play this movement any other way, but taking the music at a reasonable tempo, he shows off the clarity of tone and phrasing that make his playing so attractive. It’s extremely tempting to turn the second movement into a dirge, so aching and spacious is its melody. But it is a Loure, a graceful and pert court dance, and Shaham’s interpretation is one of few that I’ve ever heard to keep that fact in mind, favoring short, quick bow strokes to give the music a sprightly gait. He takes the repeats in all of the sonata movements, of course, and his ornamentation, though tasteful, is not the sort of inoffensive noodling usually heard from violinists as a nod to period practice. Deeply thoughtful, often playful, his additions actually make the second time around feel like a fresh take on the same idea. The chief example is the Gavotte en rondeau, growing cheekier and more complex with every subsequent iteration of the refrain.

The most impressive suite from the entire set, and the only one in which Shaham’s experimental tempi really work is, as it happens, the greatest and most famous, the D-minor Partita. This piece is a towering fixture in the violin repertoire in the way that Beethoven’s Fifth looms over the symphonic repertoire, or Hamlet over English drama. To render an interpretation that stands out among the hundreds that can already be heard is itself an achievement; to shed new light on the piece, to craft a reading that is truly unique, takes an uncommon strain of interpretive genius.

The opening Allemande, taken at this speed, has more a narrative than a proclamatory force. The Sarabande, less morose than usual, is actually danceable, while still retaining its intrinsic melancholy. The Gigue is impressively nimble, rippling by in an instant.

The last movement, the Chaconne, is the jewel of this partita, a dark and massive structure composed of extensive variations on a simple descending bass line. Most performances take between thirteen and fifteen minutes; by that standard, Shaham’s eleven is certainly on the extreme end, but not completely beyond the pale. His basic tempo, in fact, though certainly brisk, feels very much within standard boundaries—but crucially and unusually, he sticks to that initial tempo, maintaining a consistent pace through the kaleidoscopic progression of variations. At times, the music feels a little rushed as a result, notably in the central D-major section. In sum, though, the relentless forward push lends the music a certain subtle intensity, particularly in the thrilling bariolage sections, even while Shaham’s coloring is relatively light. His voicing is spectacular, bringing out lines in the writing that I’ve never heard so clearly before.

That, of course, is the payoff of charting a course so far afield from standard performance practice—there might be many misses, but the hits will offer fresh perspectives on even the most familiar works. It would have been nice if Shaham, like Nathan Milstein, had completed another, more tame recording in his youth, as a point of comparison, but as it is, this quirky set from a quirky master player has merit enough on its own.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 5, on page 78
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