Review: Johnny Gandelsman

Nov. 12, Perkinson Recital Hall, University of Richmond

Among violinists, the solo sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach are closely akin to sacred texts. Learning to play them is a rite of passage, and returning to them regularly – for some, daily – is both technical exercise and an act of fealty to the instrument and to music.

So it’s not surprising that many performances of these pieces (and many listeners’ responses to them) have an air of the devotional, even the ritual.

Johnny Gandelsman, a Russian-born violinist known for his work with Brooklyn Rider, The Knights, the Silk Road Ensemble and other present- and future-tense musical enterprises, might be expected to treat the Bach sonatas and partitas less conventionally than the usual classical soloist. His departure from conventionality, though, was directed to this music’s past.

Performing in a Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia-sponsored recital, Gandelsman approached these pieces as what they are: suites composed mostly of dance music. Some of the dances – sarabandes, sicilianas, correntes – are gentle or stately; others, like gigues and bourrées, are more earthy and high-stepping. Even the great Chaconne of the Second Partita, the holy of holies of the set, is a dance.

So he danced – mostly, but not entirely, with his fiddle bow – through the last three pieces of the set, the partitas No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, and No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, and the Sonata No. 3 in C minor, BWV 1005.

Gandelsman’s tempos were brisk, even ferocious in the faster dances; his articulation was crisp and his accenting sharp. In the most complex or elaborate music, such as the fugue of the sonata and the central summit of the chaconne, his playing recalled the most intense improvising of a bebop jazz musician.

He never robbed the old dances of their period gracefulness, but he conveyed a playful physicality and almost fevered immediacy that one too rarely hears in this music.

Like many touring artists, Gandelsman came packing recordings – a newly issued set of the Bach six – but with a humane and selfless twist. Proceeds from the sales at concerts will go to the Hispanic Foundation’s UNIDOS campaign assisting hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

Those who didn’t attend the concert and buy the discs can still contribute by visiting http://hispanicfederation.org/unidos/

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman, joined by narrator Chioke l’Anson, will perform in “One to One,” a free program, written and curated by Angela Lehman, at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets. Details: (804) 304-6312; http://cmscva.org

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