Bargemusic Last Friday evening it was raining heavily, as heavy rain fell outside, leaving the view of Lower Manhattan gray.
Inside, however, Bargemusic – the small concert hall docked in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo – was descended with the vibrancy of the entertainment below as a small audience stormed out to the melodious sounds of Johnny Gandelsman’s violin. Occasionally the performance had an ephemeral feel of folk music, but in reality it was a survey of Bach’s six cello suites – for a small stringed instrument, adapted with foot-tapping pleasure.
Gandelsmann is not the only violinist to have performed these classic works; Rachel Poser recorded them In 2019, a year before he released his set. But his approach is eccentric: feather-light and rooted in dance and folk music. He treats the suites as six enclosed spaces, tracing long arcs through each one, sections blurring as he plays them non-stop.
The recording of Gandelsman appeared in February 2020, and he planned a concert at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan that March. Like everything else, it was canceled. Bargemusic was his comeback on Friday; Due to ongoing security measures, it was a minor one, with the crowds already in a small space far away, and the six suites spread over two evenings instead of their usual one.
He will return to the barge, 24 and 25 June, With more Bach: Sonata and partitus for solo violin. After that, he can return to this endless investigative musician, but his focus will shift to a new project: This Is America, with premieres of 22 new violin works commissioned by the likes of Angelica Negron, Tyshon Sore and Tomeka Reid. A set is due to start this summer.
But before that, he joined a video call after the bargemusic concerts to discuss the cello suites, which he said he was discouraged from recording.
“It was seen as a novelty gimmick,” he said. “But there are at least three 19th-century versions of the transcripts, and they feel great on the violin.”
The project followed them Sonatas and Partitas Recordings. While violin solos are the toughest in their fugue and implicit counterpoint, he said, the cello more or less serves to hold multiple voices within a single line. However, the suites required the use of scordatura (optional tuning) in the fifth suite and a five-string violin in the sixth – both common in folk music.
This is what he worked on in his interpretation: a folk flavor. He avoided listening to the recording – though he said he was inspired by it Paolo Pandolfo’s Viola da Gamba rendering, “Perhaps the most radical in a way” – and tried to internalize the music to achieve his dance-y “sense of freedom”.
Suite number 1 in G: Gigu
The First Suit, Gandellsman said, “has an incredible sense of lightness, and also discovery” – a tone immediately set in the prologue, airy and full of naïve surprises in his reading.
“I don’t want to suggest that a viola or cello can’t work,” he said. “But there is something about the way the violin resonates that moves everything.”
He gives classes the feel of “a real set of dances”, like an Irish fiddler playing. Seen from that point of view, he said, the suit’s final movement, the gig, is a “party moment” – albeit a brief one. But that fleeting celebration, he said, is “pure bliss”.
“I think of my friend Martin Hayes” – a famous fiddler – “can approach a gig and change inflections and expressions in a natural way,” Gandelsman said. “To bring a feeling of joy and abandonment and to close these beautiful 15 minutes of discovery.”
Suite No. 4 in E Flat: Preface
Played on a cello, this prologue is what Gandelsman called “majestic virtues”. Phrases jump to octaves, starting from the lowest string to the highest – which, at an unthinkable pace, produces a fundamental resonance. “I quickly realized,” he recalled, “that it doesn’t work for me on the violin.”
He could not maintain a slow low-note echo and still articulates a long line. So he arrived, he said, on “an overall change”. The score is in cut time, so he started by following it, sharpening the eighth notes and having a broader view of the movement.
“Suddenly everything came together,” he said, “and it created an incredible feeling where I felt like I was looking through a kaleidoscope.”
The music was now perhaps less grand than a cello, but the architecture was revealed to the Gandelsmann in a new way. “The majestic virtue can seem overwhelming enough,” he said, “and sometimes one can get lost in the beauty of each bar or each note and lose the sense of how the harmonies are moving almost imperceptibly from bar to bar. Once. Once I gave up that majestic quality and went on to do something else, I saw an overall character of the whole suit that was incredibly light and witty and full of humor. “
Suite No 5 in C Minor: Sarabande
When Gandelsman began working on the Fifth Suite, he found himself “dragged into this world the way it sounds on cello,” he said. “It is very dramatic and in some ways the deepest of suites.”
Sarbande, in particular, is a disappointment in the short form – only a few lines in the score, composed of phrases that sound short of short notes, a sisyphine climb. However, they are impossible on depth violins. And the character of the piece is not exactly a natural fit for the instrument’s bright high E string.
Gandelsmann took steps throughout the project to pre-empt any problems in the violin’s upper register: for example, he used a gut e string, and recorded it to tape to further soften its sound. On the violin, there is still darkness in the fifth suite, Gandelsman said. But while he was working on it, “it began to reveal the quality of loneliness, much more than gravity.”
“What I feel,” he said, “is the most intrinsic type of interaction with myself.”
The Fifth Sarabande is unique among the suites, being devoid of ragas. “This is the barest-naked, solitary line,” he said. Without multiple voices, and without a low C string, the violin is left with a fundamentally different, less resonant sound than the cello. But its effect is also not diminishing.
“There is a single voice, but there is also incredible inconsistency in this movement,” he said. “Not everywhere, but in specific places he chooses these little-known variations, which are very painful. I have an incredible feeling of loss when I’m playing it. I would just try to adopt it. Hoon and don’t try to compete with the fact that I don’t have short strings that can ring forever. “