In an effort to somehow compensate for the loss of the two-month-long Tanglewood Festival to COVID-19, the organizers came up with a quite comprehensive online version, presenting both archival and newly minted content. Multiple soloists that were supposed to appear in the Koussevitzky Shed this summer were invited to record new programs on the premises. A string of Saturday night streams bearing the title “Great Performers in Recital at Tanglewood” will showcase them.

Gil Shaham performing Prokofiev's <i>Violin Concerto no. 1</i> at Tanglewood 2018 © Hilary Scott
Gil Shaham performing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 1 at Tanglewood 2018
© Hilary Scott

The first in the series actually took place last Friday and was hosted by the American soprano Nicole Cabell. Filmed in advance in the new Linde Center, the solo recital featured violinist Gil Shaham whose association with Tanglewood is decades old. Less substantial than a “normal” concert-hall presentation, the endeavor was still highly interesting. As an homage to Independence Day, it included three brief opuses by American composers, surrounding a relatively ampler Prokofiev sonata and followed by the evening’s pièce de résistance, Bach’s BWV 1006.

Scott Wheeler’s Isolation Rag, written during the current pandemic, was first performed by Gil Shaham – on video, of course – at the recent Dresden Music Festival. According to Wheeler, the piece’s origins can be sourced in an encore – William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag – that Shaham and pianist Akira Eguchi rendered during a performance that Wheeler attended. Among the polyrhythms of Isolation Rag are several melodic references to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (coincidentally, the violinist was supposed to perform it in Tanglewood in August) and Shaham saw them as a metaphor for a soloist’s longing to perform during a forced pause in his career. It is a beautiful little gem, very suitable itself for a charming encore.

The program’s other opus having Shaham as a dedicatee was Bolcolm’s Suite no. 2, the virtuoso performing only two of the work’s 9 movements: Lenny in spats –  with its references to both jazz and the Tanglewood icon named Leonard Bernstein – and Dancing in Place – with its odd and playful requirement to use the left hand to tap on the violin’s fingerboard.

Another suggestion for a brilliant encore, with its frequent leaps even more virtuosic in nature, Max Raimi’s Anger Management began as an etude for viola (the composer is a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony’s viola section). Raimi related in an interview that Shaham surprised him during a series of subscription concerts in Chicago by playing it in front of the audience just two days after he presented it to him. In the Tanglewood recital, the violinist dispatched the score’s difficulties with the same unbelievable panache.

Less virtuosic (and less characteristic for the composer’s style) than his previously composed two sonatas for violin and piano is Prokofiev’s Sonata in D for solo violin, Op.115. It was composed in 1947 as an educational commission and performed only after its author’s death. Shaham focused on melody in this classical form sonata, trying, at the same time, to emphasize the limited harmonic ambiguities in the Moderato and to bring out different colors in the second movement’s five eight-bars variations.

Four summers ago, Gil Shaham memorably interpreted the entire set of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Now, he chose just one of them, the Partita no. 3, BWV 1006, a high peak of the violin literature. Shaham approached the dance suite as a discernible entity. After engaging his remote audience’s attention with his graceful and assured handling of the Preludio’s pyrotechnics and dynamic shading, he gradually increased the sense of exuberance from the uncommon, stately Loure to the light-footed final Gigue. The violinist rendered with great clarity the complex polyphonic textures, masterly guiding listeners through the occasionally misleading counterpoint mazes.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.