It’s a busy month for superstar violinist Gil Shaham, who started February continuing his one-man crusade for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto and will end it with a new release of violin concertos from the 1930s. In between, he is resuming his exploration of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin with recitals in the United States and Italy.

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray
At the Cleveland Museum of Art on Thursday night, Shaham warmed a packed hall of fans who braved sub-zero temperatures to hear him play radiant versions of Sonata no. 2 in A minor, Sonata no. 3 in C major and Partita no. 2 in D minor. His combination of technical brilliance, imaginative interpretation and deep feeling for the works brought the audience to its feet both at intermission and for his final bows.

From the opening notes of Sonata no. 2, Shaham offered a reminder of one of the key characteristics of his work – his ability to make the music sound fresh. This is especially challenging with the Bach pieces, which he has been playing for many years and are well-known to concert-goers. Shaham’s crisp sound and attention to detail put a bite in Bach, but what casts the music in a new light is his sheer enthusiasm for it. He approaches the solo works not as the pedagogical exercises they were once considered, but as full-blown, richly emotional compositions that invite the performer to be a co-creator with the composer.

As a student of the works, Shaham is also interested in their polyphonic effects, which came to the fore in this sonata’s second movement. Shaham played it so that the notes interlocked, turning the melody into a mosaic of sound that seemed to come from multiple voices rather than just one instrument. His ability to suggest a full harmonic texture was remarkable. The closing Allegro gave him an opportunity to reel off some dazzling runs in his inimitable style – lightning-fast without missing a single note, played with exquisite fluidity and grace.

One might quibble with Shaham’s tempo, which he has acknowledged some listeners find unsettling. It’s far from the stately pace that has long been the Baroque standard, and at times seems designed mostly to showcase his eye-popping playing skills. But the trade-off is that the music takes on a new vibrancy, particularly evident in the Partita no. 2. It sounded charged with electricity in Shaham’s hands, and razor-sharp in his control of ultra-fine ornamentation and the daunting complexities of the Corrente and Giga.

Shaham paused for just a second before diving into the seminal Chaconne, starting with a measured tempo and tone that managed to sound both sad and grand at once. It faltered a bit before picking up speed and confidence through the incredible rush of figures and variations, which Shaham blazed through and brought to a dramatic finish, closing on such an achingly beautiful note that it might have brought tears had his listeners not been so eager to leap to their feet.

After intermission, Shaham set a torrid pace with Sonata no. 3, once again building a sonic structure that seemed impossible to come from a single instrument. His command of the piece is such that he can fly through the technical challenges and concentrate on expression – in this case, an unbridled joy that captures both the secular and spiritual dimensions of the work. He gave it lighter emotional weight than the first two selections, finessing dense passages, adding playful ornamentation and finishing the concert on a bright, cheery note.

It takes nothing from the violinist’s virtuoso performances to note that part of his enchanting sound is due to his instrument, a 1699 Stradivarius. Of course, having a superb instrument does not confer the ability to play it properly. But if Bach knew how to write for violin, Shaham shows that in playing his solo works, he is equally masterful at getting the most out of his particular instrument. The golden tones he draws from it are captivating, as are the emotions he creates in making it sing, laugh and cry.

And some of his runs positively shimmer. When the music takes on visible colors and contours, it casts a special glow – even on the coldest, darkest winter nights.

*****