Review: Gil Shaham & Akira Eguchi

Feb. 18, University of Richmond

Violinist Gil Shaham, returning to town for a recital with pianist Akira Eguchi at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, pulled off one of the most elusive feats in classical music: thrilling non-specialist listeners with a piece of contemporary music.

The piece was Avner Dorman’s Sonata No. 3 (“Nigunim”), which Shaham and his pianist sister, Orli, commissioned and introduced in 2011. The sonata’s title refers to a vein of Jewish song, sacred or secular, that “ascends beyond words and conveys a deeper spiritual message,” the composer writes, observing that “a Nigun sung in Yiddish will reach and affect someone who only speaks Arabic and vice versa.”

“Nigunim,” drawing on Jewish musics from Eastern Europe and the Balkans to North Africa and Central Asia, casts its material in a modern tonal language that emphasizes virtuosity and expressiveness. It is a perfect vehicle for Shaham’s fiddle technique and musicality. The violinist and pianist played with audible affection for this music, ranging idiomatically from its dance rhythms to its introspective, prayerful tunes, and earned loud cheers after its dazzling high-speed finale.

Shaham and Eguchi made nearly as persuasive a case for an even newer work, Scott Wheeler’s Sonata No. 2 (“The Singing Turk”) (2017), a sonically prismatic take on music from the “Turkish” operas that were in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wheeler casts the “Aria of Roxelana” from Paul César-Gilbert’s “The Three Sultanas” is a bittersweet soliloquy, framed by more playful takes on arias from Handel’s “Tamerlano” and Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia.”

The program opened with Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro “in the Style of Pugnani,” one of the famed violinist’s bogus “discoveries” of early music that fooled even scholars in pre-historically informed times. Shaham doted on Kreisler’s deception, giving the prelude convincing faux-baroque treatment before indulging in the latter-day pyrotechnics of the allegro.

More standard fare filled the concert’s second half. Shaham began with a fluent and sonically brilliant, if not quite in current baroque fashion, rendition of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, last of the composer’s six great suites for solo violin.

Then, Shaham and Eguchi took on César Franck’s Sonata in A major, playing this violin-recital staple with focused tone and fine expressive range, bringing out the Wagnerian ecstasy of its allegro molto movement and the proto-impressionism of its recitative-fantasia.

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