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Violinist Johnny Gandelsman Infuses Bach's 'Sonatas & Partitas' With Joy

May 29, 2018
Originally published on May 30, 2018 11:55 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin are as big a test for a violinist as his cello suites are for a solo cellist. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says there are many fine recordings and several great ones of these sonatas and partitas, and now a new one by Johnny Gandelsman takes its place among the very best. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 3 IN E MAJOR, BWV 1006: I. PRELUDIO")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who was born in Russia 40 years ago, has a large following as a member of a popular string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad Ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 3 IN E MAJOR, BWV 1006: I. PRELUDIO")

SCHWARTZ: He's celebrated for playing a wide variety of music from purely classical to the most inventive contemporary pieces. His new recording of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin made its debut at the top of Billboard's traditional classical music chart. This is unusual for a work as demanding on the audience as it is on the performer, but having heard Gandelsman play them with such liveliness and color at a concert at MIT three years ago, I'm not surprised.

These pieces are relatively early works of Bach. He was only 35 when he completed them, and he never published them in his lifetime. The music consists of three sonatas each followed by a partita, a multimovement series of dances. The sonatas are more formal, with essentially the same four-movement pattern, beginning with a big, slow movement followed by a complex fugue whose overlapping lines make it hard to believe there's only one person playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "SONATA NO.3 IN C MAJOR, BWV 1005: II. FUGA")

SCHWARTZ: Here, for example, is part of the fugue in the third sonata.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "SONATA NO.3 IN C MAJOR, BWV 1005: II. FUGA")

SCHWARTZ: After the fugue, there's a short, often lyrical slow movement and a final bracing, fast movement. Then comes the partita. The word partita means, among many things, a game. In music, it refers to a set or suite of dances. Bach's three violin partitas range from five to eight movements, and movement is the key word. Among the dances are a courtly minuet, a slow and often solemn saraband and a lively gigue, which gives us our word jig. Gandelsman is especially good on the dance movements, which may have some connection to his partner being the extraordinary Amber Star Merkens, a former leading dancer of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

The most famous and challenging of all these partita movements is the tremendous D-minor chaconne that concludes the second partita. It's the longest movement in the entire set, and it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or more depending on who's playing. In some hands, it can seem more like a soul-searching Shakespeare's soliloquy than any kind of dance. The most moving and ferociously tragic performance I know is the one recorded by the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1950.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH SZIGETI PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1004: V. CIACONNA")

SCHWARTZ: In the chaconne, Gandelsman doesn't compete with Szigeti's gravity. If anything, his performance is more like antigravity. With its speed and buoyancy, his version is three-quarters the length of Szigeti's - more lilting than tragic, more like an actual dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1004: V. CIACONNA")

SCHWARTZ: You may have heard me tell this story before about that concert at MIT three years ago. Gandelsman had finally crossed the finish line, breathless and exhausted after playing all 31 movements of the Bach's sonatas and partitas. But Yo-Yo Ma, who had come to hear his friend, jokingly shouted out, encore. Everyone laughed. But in a split second, Gandelsman picked up his violin and started to play the opening bars of a Bach cello suite, a Yo-Yo Ma specialty. That got an even bigger laugh, especially from the famous cellist himself. If Johnny Gandelsman doesn't plumb Bach's most tragic depths, it's partly because he is so thoroughly infused with Bach's own youthfulness and joy.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book is a collection of poems called "Little Kisses." He reviewed Johnny Gandelsman's recording of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Iranian journalist, activist and feminist Masih Alinejad, who has led a campaign against the compulsory hijab, or head covering, for women. She grew up in a small Iranian village and now lives in exile in Brooklyn. She has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S SONATAS AND PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.