The concert-recital heard by the lucky audience members at UNC Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall was so good that it left this listener, at least, thinking about how our concert life might be revised – perhaps we might economize and have a few years with nothing but such solo recitals. Gil Shaham, the celebrated American/Israeli violinist, brought a program consisting of the three best- known of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach – the third partita in E, S.1006, the last of the six works in the set; the third sonata, in C, S.1005, the fifth; and the most famous of all six, the second partita in D minor, S.1004, with the Chaconne.
I have always thought of the E major partita as a sort of dessert for the listener (or indeed the performer); lighter, more-easily-digestible music after the heavy going of the previous five works. Here Shaham followed the maxim which tells us “life is short – eat dessert first,” and offered a performance which was practically Platonic in its approach to pure perfection – beautiful tone, beautiful intonation, charming interplay of forte and piano, making the most of the dance character of the movements, but with nothing exaggerated. Shaham completely relaxed as he played, with his body connecting with the important downbeats in the music, a strong dance pulse always present. This was simply marvelous music-making. One could tell this just by listening to the rapt attention of the listeners – the large hall was amazingly still, with the hundreds of eyes and ears focused only on the amazing gift they were receiving from Shaham.
Shaham followed with the C major sonata, considerably more abstract, with a long fugue as the second movement. Here he chose a tempo (rather quick) for the fugue subject that works well for the subject itself, but ended up being a little too quick for the really crunchy bits of complicated polyphony that Bach generates with it later in the movement. In compensation, it was highly effective for the moments of bariolage.
After the interval, Shaham spoke a few charming words to his by-then devoted audience, and then launched into the D minor partita, again played on the very highest level. A violin teacher near me had commented at the interval on how relaxed Shaham’s posture is, but what is equally true, and perhaps more important, is that Shaham, who had thanked us for being present for his “spiritual journey” (his words), emanates a transcendent calm and pure enjoyment as he plays – no complications, nothing beyond a great intellect combined with a great technique having a level of fun that most of us can only dream of.
The audience called him back for an encore of the Gavotte from the third partita. I hope that UNC will bring him back for a concert of the other three works from the set.