Violin master Gil Shaham conjures sublime Bach from his Stradivarius (review)

Gil Shaham
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Mark Satola

Stradivarius violins are lately on the minds of many Americans, thanks to the media’s coverage of the theft and subsequent recovery of a Strad owned by the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony.

One suspects, however, that much of the attention paid derives more from the monetary value attached to the instrument — an estimated $5 million — than from any sudden uptick in appreciation of the sort of music played upon a Stradivarius.

The real value of the instrument lies in the sublime sounds a master virtuoso can draw from it; and if that’s a true measure, then the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Strad Gil Shaham played Thursday night at the Cleveland Museum of Art was, for that space of time, the most valuable instrument in the world.

Shaham appeared in the museum’s seasonlong “Masters of the Violin” series, performing music for unaccompanied violin by Johann Sebastian Bach: the Second and Third Sonatas, and the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, with its mighty concluding “Chaconne.”

The violinist, who celebrates his 42nd birthday this month, made a brisk, no-nonsense entry and launched directly into the Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, demonstrating at once the miraculous technique that marks him as the true heir to Jascha Heifetz and Leopold Auer – a fluid but precise left hand, a bow arm that’s astonishing in its range of attack and a sweetness of tone that shines through the spectrum of color that he created with each note.

Shaham demonstrated his musical acuity in the sonata’s Fuga, in which Bach creates a complex fugue full of implied counterpoint and voice-leading, supported by difficult double and triple stops. It’s music that could get quite thick and muddled in lesser hands, but Shaham kept Bach’s lines well-defined, while keeping the arc of the musical narrative dramatic and clear.

In the Second Sonata’s Andante, Shaham’s incomparable bow arm came into play as he conveyed both the movement’s singing melody and its “walking” accompaniment with admirable deftness.

Bach wrote three each of sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Of the partitas, the best-known is the Second, for its concluding “Chaconne,” a set of variations on a ground that is a greater work of art than its formal title might imply.

Shaham gave a reading that was briskly paced and dramatic, but which allowed the music to unfold on its own. The sublime moderation from D minor to D major midway through was played with such hushed tenderness that it seemed to hover over the hall; and the return to the minor key was conveyed with an almost-tragic sensibility.

The Chaconne might be a tough act to follow, but the Third Solo Violin Sonata was more than a match for it. Bach’s musical thought in the sonatas is more substantial than in the partitas (which are basically suites of dances, however accomplished), and the Sonata No. 3 in C Major is the meatiest of the set.

Shaham took full advantage of his instrument’s powerful voice, with its brilliant upper range, complex midrange and full, booming lower range, filling Gartner Auditorium with a sound that was almost orchestral. In the concluding Allegro assai, he gave his virtuosity free rein and drove home a performance that was simply electrifying.

The sold-out audience called Shaham back to the stage twice, but there was no encore; it hardly seemed necessary after such a satisfying performance.