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Violinist Johnny Gandelsman finds ‘infinite possibilities’ in Bach’s cello suites

“I wasn’t quite ready to stop working on Bach’s music,” Gandelsman said of his latest project.Demetrius Freeman/The New York Times/file 2013

January 2015. The violinist Johnny Gandelsman — Moscow-born, New York-based, and a member of such restlessly curious groups as the Silk Road Ensemble and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider — is on the small stage of MIT’s Killian Hall. He has just finished playing Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas, the summit of the solo violin repertoire, to an enthusiastic audience that fills the room. The ovation is well earned, as Gandelsman’s performance is notable for the supple touch he brings to music that violinists often swath in layers of profundity. Even in the epic chaconne movement of the D-minor partita he emphasizes the music’s dance roots.

Among the most enthused audience members is Gandelsman’s Silk Road bandmate, Yo-Yo Ma. Ma is, in fact, loudly clamoring for an encore. With a sly smile, the violinist obliges by playing the first bar of Bach’s Third Cello Suite. Lasting just a few seconds, it is both a subtle inside joke between friends and a perfect capstone to the evening.


But there’s another, slightly fanciful, way to see that brief encore: as the origin of Gandelsman’s latest project: all six of the Bach cello suites, transcribed for violin. His recording of this slice of the Bach solo string repertoire is slated for release on his own label (In a Circle Records) on Feb. 7; the next evening, he returns to MIT to perform all the suites, this time in the larger Kresge Auditorium. Might that brief encore half a decade ago — a salute to a cellist whose name has become almost synonymous with the Bach suites — have been the catalyst for this new undertaking?

Alas, the truth rarely fits into our stories as we might wish it would. In a recent e-mail exchange, Gandelsman explained that the MIT concert came at the beginning of his experience performing the sonatas and partitas, some time before he began thinking about the cello suites. It was only after performing them about 30 times, he wrote, that he realized that “I wasn’t quite ready to stop working on Bach’s music.”


Fair enough. But why, you might ask, did Gandelsman feel compelled to make the suites, which have never lacked performance opportunities by cellists themselves for the past several decades, part of his repertoire?

It was actually a different cellist, Anner Bylsma, who provided the inspiration. Bylsma, a titan in the period instrument world who died last year at 85, and his wife, violinist Vera Beths, hosted Gandelsman at their home in Amsterdam a few times. This was a pilgrimage many musicians have made — to play for the master cellist and immerse themselves in Bach’s world.

“I loved every moment spent in that house,” Gandelsman wrote. “Anner’s continuous and evolving learning of those pieces was infectious.” During one visit, he noticed that one of Bylsma’s books on the suites contained a transcription for violin. “It’s possible that he intended it to be for practice purposes only, but after a while I thought, why not?”

Listening to Gandelsman’s forthcoming recording, one recognizes up front the grace and agility that informed his interpretation of the sonatas and partitas. His account of the suites seems, if anything, even lighter and more dance-worthy. In part that’s because of the violin’s lighter timbre and his use of a lighter bow and gut strings for three of the violin’s four strings. (For the sixth suite, which Bach is believed to have written for a five-string instrument, Gandelsman uses a five-string violin he found at an instrument shop in Queens.) But there’s a new ingredient as well: his playing of the suites has an almost improvisatory sense of freedom, and some of the movements sound distinctly like folk music.


This was no accident. In fact, Gandelsman mentioned that over the last few years he’s seen more and more commonalities between Baroque and folk musics. For the suites, he tried to learn the music by ear rather than by studying the score, the opposite of how he approached the sonatas and partitas. Doing so, he came to see in the suites “the implication for infinite possibilities, the way an incredible improviser can find endless variation within the simplest form.”

One of his favorite improvisers is the Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, with whom Brooklyn Rider recently recorded an album. At one point in the e-mail exchange, Gandelsman described the suites as a place where all these currents of influence came together in a vision of music that balanced tradition, freedom, and the wonder of discovery.

“Like Bach, Martin is an incredible improviser, creating endless variation in expression,” he wrote. “Similar to Anner’s process, Martin’s playing has the humble joy of a scientist’s pursuit, finding out what else might be in there, what layers might still be hiding. Improvisation is not something I’m very comfortable with, but my goal is to get to a place where I can feel like what’s happening in terms of bowings and phrasing is created on the spot.”



Presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology. At Kresge Auditorium, MIT. Feb. 8, 7 p.m. www.eventbrite.com

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.