Johnny Gandelsman’s Album of Solo Bach Works for Violin: A Revelatory Magnum Opus
Johnny Gandelsman is the first violinist of one of the world’s most consistently interesting string quartets, Brooklyn Rider, advocates for some of this era’s most individualistic composers. As buyers of classical albums are probably aware, Gandelsman’s epic solo recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas – streaming at Bandcamp – topped the classical charts earlier this year, a more substantial feat than most people might realize. While the vinyl renaissance keeps gaining traction, it’s impossible to know just how many units are being moved since artists don’t typically report them. And keep in mind that the bestselling album of two years ago among all styles of music was a Mozart box set.
For those who haven’t heard Gandelsman’s magnum opus, it’s everything anybody could want from a number one record. It’s arguably the most cantabile performance of these pieces ever recorded. Gandelsman approaches the material as a singer would, not only segment by segment – which run the length of the emotional spectrum – but seemingly line by line.
The secret to his technique is his legato. You can hear it in his work with Brookyn Rider, most strikingly in the group’s hauntingly lustrous take of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131, from their 2012 Seven Steps album.
Most musicians who play Bach tend to drift toward a mechanical rhythm. Then there’s a small contingent who decide that Bach’s steady note values don’t count for anything, and play rubato, with predictably befuddling results. Gandelsman doesn’t do either. Much of Bach has an inner swing – often, a shuffle rhythm – and he finds that wherever it exists. Other times, he lets the ornamentation serve as contrast to rhythmic steadfastness. And when he digs in with a razor’s edge staccato, as in the biting, leaping seventh movement of the Partita No. 1, the contrast is breathtaking.
This isn’t an album you can hear once and completely grasp. The more you hear it, the more of an ode to joy it turns out to be – but if the best you can do is play this in the background during dinner, you’re missing the point. What Gandelsman is going for here, beyond technical dazzle, is close emotional attunement. Bach loved stories, and secret codes – this is as close to a skeleton key as exists for this often wildly dynamic music.
It would be overkill to dissect each suite segment by segment. But there are innumerable interludes to get lost in (and if there’s any composer you can get completely lost in, it’s Bach). The way Gandelsman weaves through the ornamentation to introduce the opening adagio of the very first Sonata is as playful as it is stately – “charmingly antique” might explain how someone else would do it.
There are some dances here, but they don’t necessarily leap and bound. More likely than not, they flow gracefully, whether with the muted bittersweetness of the second movement of the first Partita, or the almost conspiratorial pulse of its presto finale. And even in the quasi-Vivaldi of the fourth movement, Gandelsman wrings as much sheer sound out of those volleys of eighth notes as any human not armed with an organ could possibly obtain.
Gandelsman parses the Sonata No. 1 from forlorn, to brooding, then determined and finally slithery – what a transformation! The build-down from suspense to partial resolution in Sonata No. 3 is also revelatory. The storm that rips at the chaconne that closes Partita No. 2 might be the both the album’s most technically challenging and adrenalizing moment.
Gandelsman doesn’t have any solo shows coming up, but popular young-ish orchestra the Knights, who often share band members with Brooklyn Rider, are playing the Naumburg Bandshell on July 17 at 7:30 PM with a program of works by Anna Clyne, Brahms and Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat.