Shaham in Bach Unaccompanied—Except for Moving Images

United StatesUnited States Bach: Gil Shaham (violin), David Michalek (films), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 14.4.2016. (HS)

J.S. Bach

Sonata No. 1 in G minor
Partita No. 1 in B minor
Sonata No. 2 in A minor
Partita No. 2 in D minor
Sonata No. 3 in C major
Partita No. 3 in E major

Some years ago, Yo-Yo Ma partnered with six directors, who filmed him in various locations doing Bach’s six cello suites. The films are fascinating in their way, but the lasting impression was of Ma’s masterful performances.

The same can be said of Gil Shaham’s collaboration with film artist David Michalek, who created a series of oddly evocative short films—extreme slow-motion depictions of dancers, still-lifes, and other painterly scenes—that accompanied much but not all of the music, for this concert at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California (presented by Cal Performances). Enchanting as the films could be, I expect I’ll remember much longer Shaham’s gold-standard interpretations of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

Shaham offered his usual precision leavened with warmth, zillions of tiny nuances seamlessly molding the music. He used ornamentation sparingly in the earlier sonatas and suites, weaving in more coloratura mostly in the final two as Bach’s complexity level increased.

This interpretation split the difference between modern and strictly historical performance. Shaham used some vibrato, for example, but not always. His choices—of what to elide and what to play more crisply—felt fresh and alive. He got rich, supple sounds from his modern-stringed instrument, which could no doubt be heard clearly to the back of the hall.

Shaham’s brisk tempos made for rhythmic vitality and jaw-dropping articulation, especially in the complex Fuga of Sonata No. 2, and in the rapid passages of the Allegro assai of Sonata No. 3. He created contrast between showmanship and ntrospective beauty, such as in the parallel thirds in the middle of the Second Partita’s Ciaccona, and the spare, haunting lines of the Sarabande in the First. The dances that give the partitas their individual personalities benefited from a vigorous approach that allowed rhythms to take precedence, without losing an ounce of shading.

Michalek creates films in extreme slow motion that can, at first glance, seem like photographs—until subtle movements become apparent. His program note says that one of Bach’s cello suites inspired this project: No. 5, playing on the audio system when Michalek visited a collector who owned two of his portraits of children, and the director noticed “a subtle dialogue” with the music.

The films’ glacial pace is so different from these sonatas and partitas that it’s impossible to synchronize movement, and that fact seems to keep the films from competing with the music. There were moments when the shape of Bach’s lines were interwoven with the images, but it was also easy to ignore the films completely and focus strictly on Shaham.

Inspired by musicologists who suggest that Bach had the Christmas story in mind for the first Sonata and Partita (the Easter story for the second pair and Pentecost for the third), Michalek focused on youth in the films for the first pair, opening on an infant and child. For the second pair, a still life of a skull, crystal ball and pomegranate played behind the Grave of Sonata No. 2, and for the Ciaccona, the high point of the set, a Japanese woman in a complex, colorful kimono artfully waved two fans while Shaham delivered his extraordinarily compelling sounds.

Against the Allegro assai finale of Sonata No. 3, a lavish flower arrangement was washed away by a veritable waterfall, and reappeared in reverse to go with the Gigue that concludes Partita No. 3.

Two films involving children were especially charming. A prepubescent girl in a velvet dress danced with abandon in one, the camera focusing on her hands rather than her feet. A boy and girl aged 9 or 10, clad in 18th-century peasant clothing (reminiscent of a Vermeer painting), played violins and made each other laugh in ultra-slow motion, as Shaham played the Loure from the Partita No. 3.

The evening had a bit of a strange vibe—and it wasn’t just the films.

For one, a significant portion of the audience insisted on applauding after each musical movement, which Shaham graciously acknowledged with a short nod. But despite his efforts to hold his bow in the air, poised to start the next movement, the crowd never got the message. Applause also interrupted the dying away of a beautifully sustained diminuendo on the last note of the magnificent Ciaccona—before he even lifted his bow. The performance deserved a lovely moment of final silence to frame it.

All that aside, in the end Bach wins. In the hands of masters who understand the music, he always does.

Harvey Steiman

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