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.
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.