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Dancing through Bach’s sublime Cello Suites, on the violin

Johnny Gandelsman performed Feb. 8 at MIT.Leon Yim and MIT

CAMBRIDGE — Bach’s Six Cello Suites are the beating, deep-souled heart of the cello repertoire. Cellists do not just perform the Suites and move on. They study them, internalize them, and map their own creative journeys against the truths these works reveal across the different seasons of a life in music.

Violinists, for their part, have had little reason to covet the profundities of the Cello Suites, for Bach bequeathed to them their own stunning set of solo works — the Sonatas and Partitas — a kindred windfall of spare beauty, and one that occupies a similarly hallowed place in the violin repertoire. As a result, violinists almost never touch the Bach Cello Suites. They are a world apart.


So there was a whiff of audacity when the free-spirited, Brooklyn-based violinist Johnny Gandelsman decided to record all six Cello Suites transcribed for violin, as he recently did, and to perform the complete set before a live audience at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Saturday night.

Before the concert began, one might have been forgiven for harboring a doubt or two. After all, there is a certain gravitas and grandeur to the Cello Suites that is perhaps inseparable from the cello itself — as well as a certain pathos that flows from the music’s sheer difficulty, the fact that its realization requires a kind of primal struggle between human and instrument. What might be lost with the music’s migration up the staff, and its transition to an instrument so much more nimble?

On Saturday night, the very premise of the question did not seem to hold. True, hearing the First Suite required an adjustment for the ear. When this music is rendered on violin, the difference is not only a matter of key and register, but also of tone color, instrumental brilliance, and facility of execution. Passages that even the best cellists negotiate with lumbering effort, Gandelsman sauntered through with casual ease, thanks in part to the lightning-quick responsiveness of the thinner violin strings, and the smaller distances that the left hand is required to negotiate.


As Gandelsman journeyed down his path, movement by movement, more deeply into Bach’s world, any lingering doubts about this project were scattered by sheer dint of the fantasy and poetry of his playing. It helped that he did not attempt to perform the works cellistically, and neither did he try to claim them with a flashy violinist’s imprimatur. Instead, with the help of his astonishingly fluid technique, he set the music free as music.

That is to say, by the Allemande of the First Suite, I had stopped thinking about the cello altogether. To write clinically of Gandelsman’s phraseology, his cadenza-like approach to tempos, or even to mention that he played the Sixth Suite, remarkably, on a five-string violin, would not relay the spell this performance cast. Weight turned into weightlessness. The music re-discovered its own origins in dance. And it seemed to speak with the naturalness of a folk song. This was an exquisitely personal vision of Bach, all radical sincerity and glinting light. The audience sat rapt for nearly two hours, until it rose as one.


At MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, Feb. 8.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at, or follow him @Jeremy_Eichler.