in: Reviews

November 3, 2015

Shaham at Speed: Videos in SlowMo


J. S. Bach’s three Sonatas and three Partitas for unaccompanied violin represent an unquestionable culmination of western music for violin. For players they offer challenges on several levels: technical, musical, physical, and they require intense emotional involvement. To play all six works during a single recital is a formidable task attempted by very few.

Gil Shaham presented the three Sonatas and the three Partitas to a packed house at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, where the almost incredible smoothness of his playing and his warm, silken tone captivated everybody.

His interpretation was highly individual and iconoclastic. He played everything very fast, much faster than anybody else, disregarding Bach’s own titles to several movements: Adagio, Largo, Grave, all of which indicate tempos of various degrees of slowness. He played the opening Adagio of Sonata No. 1 completely rubato, as if it were a Fantasia.

He used tempo changes within a movement, ritartandos and accelerandos in places where neither the melodic line nor the harmonic sequence called for them. It is true that in Bach’s time it was customary for performers to use embellishments of the original music. Shaham made liberal use of this custom; sometimes so much so that the embellishments obscured the original text.

Sonatas 1, 3, and 5 each have a Fuga as their second movement. Shaham’s playing indicated crystal clearly each one of the three or four voices of the Fugas; a feat that is quite difficult on a melody instrument that is not well suited to play chords and contrapuntal music.

David Michalek’s Bach Six Solos LA with Gil Shaham

This reviewer finds the very fast tempos quite stylistically suspect in the dance movements of the Partitas. With the exception of the Gigue all the dances of the Baroque period, the Allemanda, Corremte, Sarabande, Menuet, Gavotte, and Bourree, were stately, slow ones full of curtsies, deep bows, changing partners, and measured walking hand in hand. Speeding up the tempo loses some of these niceties.

The crowning piece of the concert was the Ciaccona of the Partita in D-Minor, the pinnacle of everything ever written for the solo violin. In Shaham’s hands the three sections of the work formed an integral entity of unbelievable majesty, introspection, and beauty.

David Michalek’s extreme slow motion videos accompanied some what Shaham was playing. Modern and Oriental stylized dancing, when slowed down to this degree gave almost the impression of motionless tai chi. The dancing scenes alternated with floral displays with morphing lighting and the backgrounds, and water droplets coming down at an almost imperceptible rate. There were scenes of child violinists who held their bows practically motionless; only a slow blink of the eyelids revealed that they were filmed in motion picture.

Since it’s only natural to expect that dance music and actual dancing would be complementary, it was strange that very few of the dance movements of the Partitas inspired images.

This very interesting video experiment did not really contribute to the musical experience; it rather distracted. Bach’s music speaks for itself.

Distinguished violinist and physician John Sebestyen has been making music and thinking about it for 8 decades.


  1. John, excellent review. Thank you. I would add that I really enjoyed the super slow motion films of David Michalek “accompanying” the music, following (as the program notes provided) themes of birth, death, and rebirth. And the subject of dance. The juxtaposition (or “soundtrack dissonance”) of the A minor Sonata (BWV 1003) Andante against the vignette of coping with tragedy – what was written on that note? – reminds me that life will go on, and there will be joy. And there was much joy in the music and filmmaking (and much more—color symbolism, still life vs not-so-still-life, such memorable portraiture), particularly (for me) in part three of the program, the final Sonata and Partita. I see the young dancer in red dress now. That smile, that joy of living and moving. I’m pretty much at a loss for words, though, to describe Shaham’s deeply thought and rendered journey through the Bach cycle. Wow?! What an amazing post-Halloween treat.

    Comment by Jim McDonald — November 6, 2015 at 12:05 pm

  2. I can’t say much about the films, but still have a few very vivid impressions of the playing.

    For those who worry about such details, Shaham was using a modern setup on his violin, including a “modern” (i.e., Tourte-style) bow. He did, however, seem to have at least a few pure gut strings on. Either that or his luthier knows how to simulate the sound very cleverly. The immediate result, apart from some occasional nasal twangs (which even Heifetz produced on his gut A and D strings), was a slightly darker, richer sound. Another thing, which I’ve observed elsewhere, is that by de-emphasizing the sizzling overtones, the violin encouraged even better intonation from him than is usual. The underrated acoustics of Sanders Theater did their bit by rewarding the sound with excellent clarity and projection, in addition to the multi-layered warmth. Among other things, the bariolage of the g-minor fugue spoke fabulously well in all of its voices.

    Tempos were all over the place. Most were faster than one normally hears, and quite a few worked really well. The E-major Partita was to my mind the only complete success of the evening, however, perhaps because there were few places to get carried away with improvisation. Other movements worth rehearing would be the doubles of the b-Minor, and the finales of the sonatas. There were moments of wonderful beauty and creativity all through, however. They just didn’t always get knit together.

    I found that the fugues, while extremely well played and delightfully relaxed, didn’t always work for me. The g-minor was very fast; Shaham referenced the “alla breve” marking in his notes. To me, that means not necessarily “in 2 (and allegro, while we’re at it)”, but just an adjusted pulse. If the first movement has a pulse governed by heavily subdivided quarter-notes, then the fugue should be counted in heavily subdivided half-notes. No need to get crazy. The idea of playing it with the same expression as the Orchestral Suite #1 was interesting, although you’ll find plenty of excellent baroque groups performing it less frantically than we heard the fugue on Sunday.

    Also, after the wonderfully insightful comments on the C-major fugue, Shaham played that movement so fast and so freely that I wondered what was up. Certainly, there wasn’t much going on to suggest a joyful ascension.

    Another thing to note– Shaham loves ornamentation, and not just the kind where you add a cadential trill or a mordent here or there. The effect in the b-minor Partita was quite something. You had a dance movement more or less played as on the page. Its repeats would often be quite different from that, and then you had Bach’s own variation in the double– with yet another set of ornaments added to that. Three steps away from the original text, and well worth thinking about.

    Comment by Camilli — November 7, 2015 at 12:02 am

  3. Unfortunately I was unable to hear this performance by Gil Shaham, a violinist I admire. Nor can I comment on Shaham’s ornamentation of these iconic works that, I am sure, sounded wonderful. However, readers might be amused by a comment made by my old teacher, the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, when I once asked him about adding ornaments to the music of Bach: “That is like pigeon droppings on great statues.”

    Comment by Mark Kroll — November 7, 2015 at 7:59 am

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