Johnny Gandelsman: J. S. Bach: Sonatas & Partitas for Violin
In a Circle Records

Johnny Gandelsman's solo album debut grew out of a ten-month US solo tour in 2015 that saw him perform J. S. Bach's complete set of three sonatas and three partitas fifteen times. Alone on stage with the performance outcome resting entirely on his shoulders, the violinist probably found the experience to be both daunting and exhilarating; no doubt his understanding of the material deepened exponentially by the time the last concert arrived, after which a recording emerged as the logical next step, despite the abundance of existing recordings (120 on Spotify alone, apparently). In Gandelsman's version, the six works' thirty-one movements total two hours; many parts are in the two- to three-minute range, with a small number weighing in at five, six, and eight minutes and the second partita's “Chaconne” the longest at twelve.

Many a violinist would aspire to produce the Platonic Form of the material, a realization whose objective quality would involve the greatest degree of depersonalization possible. While an argument certainly could be made for such an approach, it's safe to say it was never Gandelsman's: his is a highly personalized take that's all the more endearing for being so. It probably couldn't have been otherwise: not only is the Moscow-born, New York-based violinist a co-founder of the ever-adventurous Brooklyn Rider string quartet, he's also a member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, and it's influences from the latter that exerted a significant impact on his handling of the Bach project.

Three players who influenced his approach were Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor (with whom Gandelsman performs in the Silk Road Ensemble), banjo player Béla Fleck (who's guested with Brooklyn Rider and performed Bach transcriptions of his own), and Irish fiddler Martin Hayes. Kalhor's approach to improvising proved helpful to Gandelsman when tackling certain semi-improvised passages, such as the extended closing movement in the second partita. Of the fiddler, Gandelsman said, “Martin has a way of bowing that's so organic and magical that he really gets into this state of being, which translates to the audience. I thought about his bow technique a lot when I was playing the gigues in the second and third partitas, for example.” It wouldn't be overstating it to say that some of the fiddler's spirit found its way into the violinist's handling of the set's dance movements. A technical detail also accounts for the at times rustic, folk-like quality of his playing, namely Gandelsman's decision to string his violin with gut strings while using a modern transitional bow.

Don't let any of that give you the wrong impression, however: his Bach isn't perversely idiosyncratic; instead, an optimal balance is achieved that sees respect for the material coupled with personality. More highlights could be mentioned than space permits, but a small number should suffice to convey the character of the performance: the dazzling readings he gives the first sonata's “Presto” and the second's “Fuga” impress, as does his amazing realization of the first partita's scintillating “Double-Presto.” There's a gentle heartache to the second sonata's stately “Andante,” the third sonata's elegiac “Largo,” and the second partita's lyrical “Sarabanda” that stands in stark contrast to the carefree joy of the third partita's “Gavotte en Rondeau.” Elsewhere, he wends his way through that aforementioned “Chaconne” and the third partita's “Preludio” acrobatically, delivering their ascending and descending runs with confidence and flair, and survives intact the exhausting 350-bar thrill-ride that is the third sonata's “Fugue.”

Gandelsman's lithe, zestful playing is infused with enthusiasm, whether the movement in question's a heartfelt adagio or spirited allegro. Never does his playing impress as anything less than fully committed, his affection for Bach's music evident at every moment, and his advanced technical command of the instrument enables him to meet the material's considerable challenges (its double-, triple-, and quadruple-stops, for example) with seeming effortlessness.

March 2018