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Bach: Gil Shaham (violin), Wigmore Hall, London

Gil Shaham
Seen and Heard (UK)

By Marc Bridle

Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are a comparative rarity in the concert hall. So, it was hardly surprising to find the Wigmore Hall full for this rare recital by Gil Shaham.

The difficulties facing violinist and audience alike are formidable: for the soloist it is one of technique and interpretation; for the audience it becomes one of concentration. Bach did not write wholly melodious music for the instrument in these works; true, all the pieces have an underlying harmony, but the double-stopped polyphony and single line writing, coupled with fugues of astonishing depth and complexity, can seem a touch unnatural to the ear. And, what at times appears subtle can in fact be the reverse.

The charm of the three pieces Shaham chose for this recital seemed to work in his favour, however. Starting with the buoyant gait of the Partita No.3, which has no Allemanada, Corrente or Sarabanda, and ending with the Partita No.2 which has all three (as well as the Ciaconna) via the power of the Sonata No.2’s towering and majestic fugue, gave the recital a reverse trajectory. Tension and concentration mounted inexorably – and this was maintained even after a 20-minute interval where the D minor Partita stood alone.

What was so striking about the performance of the last Partita was Shaham’s lightness of touch throughout. Short bow strokes, allied with an impeccably controlled bowing arm, gave the work a brilliant airiness in keeping with its dance-like motifs. The A minor Sonata, in contrast, gave us something entirely different. A kaleidoscope of colour, which Shaham achieved by extending his bow length as well as by amping up vibrato, though never excessively, gave the music a texture that seemed at odds with what the instrument alone could achieve. The hallmark of this performance became that breathtaking depth of tone which Shaham seems alone in being able to generate. Rarely have I heard the fugue in this Sonata sound so solemn as it did here.

His performance after the interval of the Partita No.2 in some ways defies critical description. As early as bar 6 of the Allemanda, where three notes are needed to define the D minor chord, Shaham had woven an unconscious musical tension that proved completely gripping. The Ciaconna (taken with no pause between it and the Giga) in scale, architecture and sheer artistic imagination was as fine as any I have heard. The change to D major in the middle, for example, was utterly magical – a bass line so intense as to make the violin explode into blossom. The final, long-drawn note of the suite produced the most heavenly of sounds, intonation utterly secure, as it had been throughout the recital.

These were epic performances played with faultless technique.