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Gil Shaham performs sterling recital of unaccompanied Bach at Shriver Hall

Downton Abbey (tv program)

The more you study Bach, the deeper your admiration becomes.

At first, it's the sheer structural ingenuity of the music that startles and engrosses -- all those repeated A/B patterns; the inevitable, incredibly eventful harmonic journeys from tonic to dominant and back again; the complexity and perfection of the contrapuntal dialog.

From drinking in Bach's brilliant manipulation of form, it's a small step to being almost overwhelmed by the sense of something downright spiritual permeating the masses of notes, something grand and ennobling.   

One of the coolest things about Bach is how all that technical and expressive beauty is as apparent in a work for solo violin as in a large-scale piece for chorus and orchestra. This point was driven home superbly by Gil Shaham during his all-Bach, all-unaccompanied recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening.

If you promise not to tell anyone, I will admit that I was initially thinking about catching only the first half of the program, so I could head home earlier to get psyched for the "Downton Abbey" finale. After arriving at a stifling Shriver Hall, where the temperature inside felt like 110 degrees, I was even more convinced I would depart at intermission.

(The heat wasn't the concert presenter's fault, but some un-fixable problem with the hall, part of the Johns Hopkins campus. This was the second Shriver Hall event in a row affected by bad luck. Gerald Finley's performance of Schubert's "Winterreise" a couple weeks earlier was to have marked the debut of supertitles for art song recitals in the hall, but the projection equipment malfunctioned. Maybe it's time to bring in an exorcist.)

As soon as Shaham launched into the G minor Sonata, BWV 1001, I forgot all about that silly idea of ducking out prematurely.

It's hardly news that Shaham is an impeccable violinist, one capable of bringing out the mechanics and the majesty of Bach in equal measure. Still, it was great to be startled all over again by the brilliance of his playing, the penetrating power of his interpretations.

Sparing in his vibrato, Shaham produced a clear and beautifully focused tone, even in the busiest passages. Intonation, despite the hothouse environment, held firm. Above all, he offered remarkable subtleties of expression.

The gentle lyricism the violinist sustained in the stately Andante from the A minor Sonata, BWV 1003, is but one example; the prismatic coloring he unleashed in the Double sections of the B minor Partita, BWV 1002, is another.

It was the sort of performance that makes you feel grateful. The large audience seemed to share my opinion. There were few desertions at the interval, few parking lot-dashers at the end of the evening, and barely a cough during Shaham's inspired music-making.      

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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