Berkshire Review / Berkshire / Music

Gil Shaham’s Tchaikovsky and Bach: Double Virtuosity

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Gil Shaham. Photo from
Gil Shaham. Photo from

August 15, 2016
The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
conducted by Charles Dutoit
Kodaly – Dances from Galanta
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D, op. 35
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

August 17, 2016
Bach – Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

Gil Shaham – violin
Gil Shaham’s double appearance at Tanglewood made a powerful statement: that he was the master of both ends of the spectrum of virtuosity, with the implication that every other challenge would fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, there was a visceral, mercurial, spontaneous and totally commanding performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, a work whose technical challenges are so great that it was supposed to have been declared unplayable by its intended first performer. Actually, Leopold Auer, the first of two dedicatees, wrote:“What I did say was that some of the passages were not suited to the character of the instrument, and that, however perfectly rendered, they would not sound as well as the composer had imagined,”which led him to re-edit the solo part. There are numerous concerti (Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, etc) whose main function is virtuoso display, whatever their aesthetic merits; some of the canonic romantic works (Beethoven, Brahms) eschew this and strive for greater aesthetic gravitas (despite being just as technically challenging for the performer).

In lesser hands, the Tchaikovsky can sound like it belongs in the first category; only a select handful of violinists can transcend the grueling technical virtuosity and find the music in a consistent manner. Some players focus on the singing beauty of the slower, folk-inflected melodies, some exhibit supernatural bow control in rapid dance-like passages, including extended sections of triple stops. Of greatest importance is to maintain the musical flow, linking the episodes together with an inexorable momentum that does not dissipate during the lyrical pauses that recur periodically, particularly in the final movement.

Shaham’s performance had the benefit of Dutoit, a masterful accompanist of concerti, working with a high-powered and youthfully vigorous orchestra whose excitement at performing with such great musicians was completely infectious. Shaham walked on-stage with a look of utter delight, and it remained on his face throughout — it was party time and the electric give and take between soloist and orchestra powered the performance to the final note. It almost seemed that the more technically difficult the music, the more fun he was having, pushing the tempo each time and challenging the orchestra to keep up. (In the rapid off-beat playing in the last movement, there were a few slightly out-of-synch moments but that just added to the excitement.) Could the performance be greater than the music? (This is a philosophical self-contradiction, like Mark Twain’s comment that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” in reverse.)

The virtuosity that Bach’s unaccompanied violin music demands is of a different order, and the question to be raised is whether one who succeeds in Tchaikovsky can also succeed in Bach. Even the issue of playing all the notes with apparent ease becomes fraught with Bach, whose music borders on the impossible; every violinist must decide how to negotiate the double and triple stops that invariably interfere with the smooth metric flow (and were undoubtedly intended to). But beyond the mechanical difficulty lies the multiple musical challenges: meaningful performance requires deep understanding of the harmonic, contrapuntal, and motivic structure of each movement. (In the set of six works there are a total of thirty-one such movements.)

The three fugues, for example, must be analyzed with an understanding of fugal structures in general in order to be performed in a way that articulates those structures; Bach relies on both player and listener to compensate for the limitations of a single violin playing multi-voiced textures. The grandest fugue, that in Sonata no. 3 in C major, varies in length, on recordings, between nine and almost thirteen minutes. It is a huge sprawling structure of fugal expositions and episodes and exhausts the possibilities of fugue-for-solo-violin as thoroughly as the Chaconne does for its genre. (This was dramatically evident in the program order which placed the Third Sonata immediately after the Second Partita.) Obviously, the slower the tempo, the more clearly and creatively the performer must display the form to avoid the listener feeling lost amidst an endless set of permutations. (The slowest performance I found failed to avoid this pitfall.) Shaham’s tempo expressed the grandiose character of the material while providing enough momentum to span the vast time-space of this movement.

The partitas consist of dance movements, and the dance feel informs most of the more “abstract” pieces in the sonatas as well. This is an area where historical performance practices have made important strides in the right direction, and it is why early recorded performances, including those of Casals, have not aged well. There is an inherent contradiction between the disruptive effect of large chords and the need for a steady flow of well-articulated meter required of dance music. The performances I prefer mediate this contradiction by never losing sight of the dance feel while being elastic enough to give the chords the time they need; the best performances treat the chords as dance accents (which they are) and they feel springy rather than heavy.

In addition, the task of performing all six works in one concert is the musical equivalent of running the marathon. Doing so from memory is almost required, as the difficulties of the pieces demand thorough physical and mental preparation. Shaham has been traveling with these works after a period of preparation that has lasted between 10 and 30 years, depending on which web-site you consult. Apparently, he recorded the works using a bridge, bow and strings set-up in baroque fashion; it did not seem to me that this was the case in the Tanglewood performance. Perhaps he felt that the modern configuration was needed in the large space of Ozawa Hall. Despite Shaham’s awareness of the elements of baroque style, these were definitely modern-style performances, making full use of the lyrical capabilities and richer sound of the longer modern bow and what seemed to me to be metal strings (although they could have been gut; some modern violinists like Aaron Rosand continued to use gut long after the big switch-over to metal around 1930).

There is no question about Shaham’s thorough preparation—he obviously had a crystal-clear mental picture of each movement and was instantly ready to move on to the next with minimal pause. His tempi were on the fast side — this caused some concern during the first two works, where the feeling was almost rushed or hectic, with little time for breath and articulation. It almost seemed that he knew he had a very long program (140 minutes, including two intermissions) and was eager to get on with it. There was some omission of repeats in the Partita no. 1 which made the movements feel unusually lightweight.1

By the first intermission I was concerned that this rushed, under-inflected approach would persist, so I was pleasantly surprised when the A minor Sonata (no. 2) began with a much more rhetorically generous presentation. Suddenly the music opened up and started to breathe, and it stayed that way for the rest of the evening. The Chaconne (the last movement of Partita no. 2) is usually taken as the apotheosis of Bach’s solo violin music, and it was superbly performed, with the tricky bowing effects (including bariolage, or rapid alternation between two strings, one of which is open) transcending the physical gestures and becoming mysterious and magical sound-colors. In Shaham’s reading, however, it was an integral part of the whole work, foreshadowed by the preceding Sarabande, and in some way balanced by the fugue and the remainder of the Third Sonata which followed. One had the impression that Shaham could see all the music of this program simultaneously, and had given an overall shape to it, a truly extraordinary achievement.

Some specialists in baroque violin play this music with more rhetorical inflection and springier dance rhythms, and some of them have the technique to do so without compromising tone or flow. I strongly doubt, however, if many players in this category could give us such a musically convincing Tchaikovsky concerto. This was achieved by a musician with a positive spirit, a mercurial personality, a versatile and beautifully modulated tone, and an impressive intellectual grasp. The audiences at both performances were on their feet — there was a lot there for an audience to

1 An interesting option in this piece, where each dance movement is followed by its double, would be to use the doubles as ornamented repeats. I am not aware that anyone has tried this, and of course it is not written out this way in the manuscript, which is in Bach’s own hand.

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