Triumphant Bach!

Gil Shaham Fan Review

By Joel Borgen

This is an album I have been awaiting for a couple of decades and it was well worth the wait! I first heard Mr. Shaham play unaccompanied Bach (a couple of movements from the first Partita, if I recall correctly) on a PBS-sponsored documentary during the early days of his career and the performance was intriguing and left me wanting more. These works are probably my favorite pieces in any genre and, as most reading this probably know, are the summit of the violin literature, along with the Beethoven concerto.

Mr. Shaham has an unimpeachable technique and a unique and special sound with a platinum sheen. His interpretative warmth, generosity and ability to engage audiences have helped ensure his popularity and stature in the classical music world. While he has previously demonstrated an affinity for and mastery of the romantic and early 20th century literature, in many ways his skills are ideally suited to playing unaccompanied Bach.

I heard him play several of these works in concert about 4 years ago and, while the performance was excellent in many ways, it all seemed a little underwhelming interpretatively. However, the years of study and work that he has invested since then have paid off handsomely.

As these works go, I am familiar with the performances and recordings of a number of celebrated violinists: Szeryng, Millstein, Heifetz, Kremer, Perlman, Enescu and Hahn, among others. This new recording from Mr. Shaham is truly upper echelon and compares well with the historical greats. I need more than a few weeks to fully digest them, but they may supplant Szeryng as my all time favorite.

Shaham has taken the approach of splitting the difference between a modern and historically informed performance (HIP); he uses a baroque bow and bridge, but his magnificent, otherwise unmodified, Strad. The results work very well. The attacks are softer than a modern bow and the tempi are brisk (overall faster than Heifetz, I believe) -- the dance-like movements really do feel danceable. His technique is more than up to the task. The separation and articulation of the different voices are excellent. He uses minimal vibrato and it is used very well when employed. Some may find the tempi too fast (as it will be to some tastes in the Chaconne), but when it works (as in the fugue of the third sonata), it works triumphantly!

This is one of Mr. Shaham’s finest recording accomplishments, up there with the Barber/Korngold concerto album and the Prokofiev concerto album. It was clearly a labor of love. Congratulations to him for making a major addition to the recorded legacy of these works. Highly recommended.