Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Cleveland Museum of Art
February 6

Giving well-known works a fresh sound.

Last week this column noted the pleasure of hearing a great player like Jeremy Denk paired with a really fine Steinway. This, however, turned out to be just a warm-up for an even more refined combination at the Cleveland Museum of Art two nights later: Gil Shaham playing his 1699 Stradivarius.

The sound – warm, golden, positively shimmering in its intensity – is only one of the reasons the virtuoso violinist packs concert halls around the world, even (and maybe especially) when he is performing solo. Shaham’s near-flawless playing, brilliant technique and gift for expression place him among the best in his profession, a status which has given him license to explore and expand the violin repertoire. He has, for example, almost single-handedly resurrected Erich Korngold’s neglected Violin Concerto in D major on the concert circuit.

This month Shaham is revisiting Bach’s works for solo violin in a series of recitals throughout the U.S. and Europe. Once relegated to teaching exercises, the three sonatas and three partitas have reemerged as technical tours de force that offer rich opportunities for interpretation. Which puts them right in Shaham’s wheelhouse.

From the opening notes of Sonata No. 2, Shaham offered a reminder of one of the key characteristics of his work – his ability to make the music sound fresh. His crisp sound and attention to detail put a bite in Bach, and his evocation of the sonata's polyphonic effects took it to a new level, particularly in the second movement. Shaham played it so that the notes interlocked, turning the melody into a mosaic of sound that seemed to come from multiple voices rather than just one instrument. The closing Allegro gave him an opportunity to reel off some dazzling runs in his inimitable style lightning-fast without missing a single note, played with exquisite fluidity and grace.

One might quibble with Shaham’s tempo, which is far from the stately pace that has long been the Baroque standard. At times, it seems designed mostly to showcase his eye-popping playing skills. But the trade-off is that the music takes on a new vibrancy, particularly evident in the Partita No. 2. It sounded charged with electricity in Shaham’s hands, and razor-sharp in his control of ultrafine ornamentation and the daunting complexities of the Corrente and Giga.

Shaham paused for just a second before diving into the concluding Chaconne, starting with a measured tempo and tone that managed to sound both sad and grand at once. It faltered a bit before picking up speed and confidence through the incredible rush of figures and variations, which Shaham blazed through and brought to an achingly beautiful finish.

After intermission, Shaham set a torrid pace with Sonata No. 3, once again building a sonic structure that seemed impossible to come from a single instrument. His command of the piece is such that he can fly through the technical challenges and concentrate on expression – in this case, an unbridled joy that captures both the secular and spiritual dimensions of the work. He gave it lighter emotional weight than the first two selections, finessing dense passages, adding playful ornamentation and finishing the concert on a bright, cheery note.

Though it all, the violin was like a second musician onstage, singing, laughing and crying in lush, tender tones. No one combines such sophisticated interpretation with technical virtuosity as well as Shaham, who turns every performance into high art.

For more on Gil Shaham: http://www.gilshaham.com/

To hear him play the Chaconne from Partita No. 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMrLnjp1O_g


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