Violinist Gil Shaham brings Bach, Beethoven, and two premieres to Davies

Gil Shaham
San Francisco Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

The Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony continued last night in Davies Symphony Hall with a recital by violinist Gil Shaham. He framed his program with familiar classics, beginning with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 partita in E major for solo violin (the sixth and last of the “sonatas and partitas” collection) and concluding with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 47 sonata in A major, best known as the “Kreutzer.” Between these two works Shaham gave two compositions their San Francisco premieres. To complement the Bach he performed William Bolcom’s second suite for unaccompanied violin, commissioned for Shaham by Music Accord, Inc., while the Beethoven sonata was complemented by Avner Dorman’s third sonata, given the title “Niggunim.” Shaham’s accompanist for both sonatas was the pianist Akira Eguchi.

While the three sonatas in Bach’s collection all follow the same four-movement architecture, an alternation of slow and fast with a fugue for the second movement, each of the three partitas breaks from the convention of a series of dance movements, usually consisting of allemande, courante, saraband, minuet (or similar form involving a trio), and gigue. Most familiar is the second, in D minor, in which four dance movements are followed by a massive chaconne whose duration is about the same as that of all four preceding movements. The first, in B minor, also has four dance movements; but each is followed by an embellished “double.”

BWV 1006 is probably best known for its opening prelude, a high-energy flow consisting almost entirely of sixteenth notes that pushes the performer’s virtuoso skills to the limit and, in that style of invention that Bach so enjoyed, keeps putting off the move to the final cadence. It also structures its gavotte as a rondo, providing Bach with yet another opportunity to keep inventing new ideas all structured around a relatively simple primary theme. It also draws upon the less familiar loure for one of its dance forms.

BWV 1006 thus offers abundant opportunity for virtuoso display, but Shaham is a performer who consistently goes beyond simply showing off technical skill. He took Bach’s inventive approach to composition as incentive for developing his own inventive rhetoric of execution, shaping phrases to call attention to how they establish different “positions” in the overall “argument” of each movement and, even more importantly, exploring and exploiting the impact of soft dynamics, sometimes where one would least expect to encounter it. Shaham’s interpretation thus honored Bach’s pedagogical principles involving the tight coupling of proficiency in execution with proficiency in invention, building his own rhetorical inventiveness upon Bach’s foundation at the structural level.

That rhetorical inventiveness provided the appropriate transition to Bolcom’s latter-day rethinking of the traditions of Bach’s solo violin compositions. The gavotte serves only to provide a standard tempo, while any sense of the traditional dance form is left in the dust. There is also a fugue; but its tightly-knit chromaticism tends to reflect more on Béla Bartók than on Bach. (Bartók had his own deep appreciation of Bach.) However, there is still an overall acknowledgement of dance forms. In this case, though, they are framed by an opening “Morning Music” and closing “Evening Music,” which share thematic material.

Taken as a whole, however, this suite seems to show Bolcom more inclined to reflections on the past, rather than on Bach’s focus on pedagogy. Shaham thus approach the music with a more personalized sense of rhetoric. He recognized the playfulness behind the reflections in each of Bolcom’s movements and shaped his execution to clue the audience in on that playfulness without ever overstressing it. This was music conceived with many chuckles and a few belly-laughs; and Shaham presented it all with the skillful timing of a good stand-up comedian.

Beethoven’s Opus 47, on the other hand, was an ambitious undertaking for its time (composed between 1802 and 1803). Beethoven was clearly no longer preoccupied with getting out from the shadow of Joseph Haydn in establishing his own identity. Nevertheless, Haydn lived until 1809; and we may wonder if Opus 47 was a move to establish Beethoven in a genre that had never been significantly pursued by either Haydn or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In other words Opus 47 is the firm expression of a sense of self that would shortly thereafter emerge through such “well-defined Beethoven” compositions as the Opus 53 piano sonata in C major (the “Waldstein,” completed in 1803) and the Opus 55 symphony in E-flat major (the third “Eroica,” completed in 1805).

It is also important to note that Beethoven rarely let the piano serve as “mere accompaniment” for his instrumental chamber music. Thus, last night’s performance was very much a partnership of “shared knowledge” contributed by both Shaham and Eguchi. The overall rhetoric had more to do with the interplay across their respective parts than on the violin serving as a focal point. The result was a highly expressive account of this chamber music classic through which those of us on audience side could appreciate values residing more in those acts of making music than in the technical intricacies of the marks on the score pages.

Unfortunately, little of that sense of making music emerged from Dorman’s more recent (2011) sonata. The title “Niggunim” is the plural of “nigun,” which is a form of Jewish religious song that introduces more melodic content than can be found in liturgical chant. These songs figure heavily in Hasidic worship, hence the appearance of a “Nigun” movement in Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem suite, in which Bloch also captured the improvisatory quality of the song form.

Dorman took a more cosmopolitan approach to the form, evoking connotations of both European and Asian cultures. It was clear that he was also going for that same improvisatory rhetoric. However, there was too much of a sense of note-by-note calculated reasoning to allow such rhetoric to emerge, let alone flourish. Furthermore, any relation to Hasidic ecstasy arising from the singing of such songs seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. What remained was a host of some extremely impressive technical challenges, all of which were met admirably by both Shaham and Eguchi; but those challenges undermined the semantic intent of the sonata’s title, leaving behind only virtuosity for its own sake.

For his encore Shaham chose to return to Bolcom, performing a setting for violin and piano of the composer’s piano rag “Graceful Ghost.” Bolcom intended this as a memorial piece; and, even if one does not know who is being memorialized, one senses the intensity of personal feeling. Here again Shaham brought the intensity of emotion to the foreground without ever overplaying the music’s effects. It made for a wistful follow-up to the compelling account of Beethoven’s Opus 47 that the audience had just experienced.