Shaham’s Uneven Bach Sonatas and Partitas

 United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (6): Gil Shaham (violin). Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 24.7.2013 (HS)

Bach: Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas: Sonatas 1-3, Partitas 1-3

Gil Shaham playing J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major created nothing short of a miracle. Impeccable technical skill met a devil-take-the-hindmost bravado coupled with a profound understanding of the composer’s intricate musical architecture, creating an irresistible outpouring of gorgeous sound and glory.

If only all six of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas had been so magical in Shaham’s marathon traversal Wednesday evening in Harris Hall. Something wasn’t quite right in the early going.

Shaham arranged the program in three sections, separated by two short intermissions. He opened with Sonata No. 1 in G minor and Partita No. 1 in B minor, followed by Sonata No. 2 in A minor and Partita No. 2 in D minor, and the final pairing was Sonata No. 3 in C Major with that E major Partita. In Bach’s terminology, the sonatas are four-movement works surrounding a central fugue with two slow movements, finishing off with a fast finale. Partitas comprise six to eight dance movements, analogous to the famous unaccompanied cello suites.

That’s about 2 hours and 25 minutes of music, all played by one musician with no rest except for intermissions. The concert, which began at 6:00 p.m., ended around 8:40. Shaham didn’t waste any time.

Speed, in fact, was part of what was disconcerting about Shaham’s approach to this music. He took much of it at such a fast clip that some of the nuances whizzed past. It was easy to miss unexpected harmonic shifts and deftly intertwined gestures that suggest a sort of sleight-of-hand counterpoint, even though there’s only one instrument playing.

Of more concern, however, was a hard edge Shaham applied, notably to the first portion of the concert. It wasn’t just that he played almost entirely without vibrato, emulating traditional Baroque style. On sustained notes this produced a steely edge on modern strings with a modern bow, even on his 1699 Stradivarius. Perhaps he chose rapid tempos to hide that lack of warmth. But it also made much of this music sound brusque. It didn’t dance.

There were moments of brilliance in the G minor sonata. In one section, where an elaborate melody played against a repeated notes on an open string, the pedal tones rang out like a church chime, a startlingly beautiful effect. Flowery flourishes in faster passages were dispatched with élan. As in more modern music they require no vibrato anyway, so they felt more natural under Shaham’s fingers than the more sustained sections.

The four dances in the B minor partita each are followed by a “double,” essentially a more elaborate variation. Shaham’s astonishing technique made the extra-fast tempo on the double of the Corrente a dazzling moment. He got some lovely dynamic contrasts in the A minor sonata, which came next. But the steady tread of the pedal tones in the stately Andante occasionally disappeared, and some phrases trailed off rather than followed through.

These first three pieces felt less than completely realized. Flabbergasting technique, yes, but not quite coherently shaped music.

But then, with the majestic D minor partita, we got brilliantly tossed-off ornamentation, particularly in the rapidly played Corrente and Giga. The monumental Ciaconna, one of the most challenging pieces ever written for violin, may have felt a bit disjointed, but Shaham clearly had his feet under himself for the first time this evening.

Even more astonishing was the Fuga in the C major sonata, awe-inspiring for illuminating every tiny detail, seamlessly executed. This continued into a beautifully caressed Largo and breathless finale. Shaham’s body language, which had been stiff and serious for the first two-thirds of the concert, now seemed free. His face reflected the music and he looked at the audience often.

Finally, in the concluding E major partita, he became his usual ebullient, confident, communicative self. He even stood farther downstage, closer to the audience. And the music just flowed.

It should be noted that Shaham has seldom played the earlier works in public. A web search found no instances in recent years where he has played all six of these in one concert. He has made something of a speciality of the E major partita, and has done all-Bach programs combining it with the other two later compositions. No doubt it’s only a matter of time before he reaches the same lofty plane with the earlier pieces.

Harvey Steiman