Violin music by Bach and Vivaldi from Gil Shaham and Rachel Podger

03.09.15
Gil Shaham
Presto Classical

I mentioned Bach's fascination with these concertos a few paragraphs back; in fact at the very same time as Vivaldi's sunny Italianate writing was wowing audiences all over Europe, Bach was at work on his own virtuoso love-letter to the violin – his sonatas and partitas for solo violin were, like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, completed about ten years after L'estro armonico. Gil Shaham has recently committed all six works to disc, and as so often when a new recording of a well-established benchmark piece comes out, it's fascinating to see how the performer has made it their own in a new way. Shaham has evidently built up his own interpretation of these pieces from scratch – informed by recent research into the social context of the dances which form the basis of the partitas, and taking full advantage of period performance practices and equipment, in particular the use of a Baroque bow, which makes some of the faster passages audibly more nimble.

Indeed his tempi are surprising in some cases – often on the fast side of what I'm used to, as in the Fugue of the G minor sonata, in which Shaham rejects the spacious, dramatic style in which it's often played in favour of keeping the music flowing along. For me at least, the faster speed actually makes the fugue work better – I found my ears could better keep track of the various parts and I heard it as a fugue in a way I hadn't really before.

Without wishing to put forward a definite theory in the absence of serious supporting evidence, it's not hard to imagine Bach absorbing the violin writing of Vivaldi as he was composing the sonatas and partitas around the same time. Shaham's light, athletic playing does much to close the gap between the North and the South European composers, and above all he never loses sight of the fact that this is, fundamentally, dance-inspired music - particularly so in the case of the partitas. It's all too easy to adopt a reverent playing style when tackling cornerstones of Bach's output, and the sense of fun can sometimes be a casualty of this. Shaham's great achievement in these works is to put the dance back into the music.

Read the full review here.