What a performer chooses to play in recital reveals what he or she thinks of the audience. A program of familiar warhorses, for example, suggests the intended audience is either timid, lazy, or perhaps a little of each.
Gil Shaham’s Friday (Feb. 27) program devoted exclusively to the unaccompanied violin works of J. S. Bach complimented the La Jolla Music Society audience even before they arrived. To the uninitiated, a single violinist playing the music of a single composer appears punishingly minimalist.
But the combination of Gil Shaham and J. S. Bach—in my book, an incontrovertible proof that less IS more—easily filled Sherwood Auditorium, and from the crowd’s lengthy ovation when Shaham finished, there was not a shred of regret around his choices.
Bach wrote six pieces for unaccompanied violin—three sonatas and three suites (called partitas), of which Shaham judiciously selected two suites and a sonata. Opening with Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006, allowed Shaham to put all his cards on the table from the outset, establishing in the explosive figuration of its Preludio his vibrant full sonority, unfailingly graceful fluidity, and sensitive dynamic shading. To interpret Bach, this latter virtue is of particular importance, since the composer only rarely indicated dynamics in his score.
Inasmuch as single movements of this Bach solo violin repertory are frequently tossed off as program encores, it was rewarding to hear the E Major Partita’s Gavotte en Rondeau, a favored encore, function as a tuneful bridge between the rugged trochee figures of Loure and the more delicate figuration of the two Menuets that follow it.
Like its sister unaccompanied sonatas, Bach’s C Major Sonata, BWV 1005, boasts a fugue as its second movement, a daunting feat of counterpoint for a melody instrument such as the violin to realize. Shaham wove together the fugue’s jaunty theme and its contrapuntal wrapping with playful confidence and assured technique. His account of the closing Allegro balanced immaculately detailed phrasing with fiery drive to the final cadence.
After intermission, Shaham returned to the Sherwood stage to play the Partita in D Minor, BWV 1004, with its celebrated Chaconne crowning both the suite and his recital program. As excellent as his first program half was, he brought even greater focus and acuity to the Partita in D Minor. I particularly appreciated the subtle dynamic shadings Shaham added in the repeated sections of the bristling Allemande, and his Courante pulsed with rhapsodic ebullience.
From the Sarabande he released profuse ornamentation in billowing clouds of incense, a virtual procession into the cathedral of sound he suggested with his commanding account of the Chaconne. After such a spiritual traversal, no encore was needed.
Some might say none was possible.