Violinist Johnny Gandelsman Records Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for the First Time & Turns to Unusual Instruments for Inspiration

By Brian Wise

Not many violinists can claim to have prepared for a performance of J.S. Bach’s complete Sonatas and Partitas by playing Irish jigs and reels. Nor would many admit to watching the fingerings of a banjo player during a jam session, or tracing the way an Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player navigates the modes of Persian classical music.

But Johnny Gandelsman says that these and other influences were firmly embedded in his musical toolkit when he began to record Bach’s three sonatas and three partitas, those career-defining cornerstones of the solo-violin literature. As a cofounder of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and a member of the Silk Road Ensemble formed by Yo-Yo Ma, Gandelsman is one of New York’s busier musicians, often working at the intersection of folk, jazz, indie rock, classical music, and dance.

Released this month on his own label, In a Circle Records, the Bach recording stands as an outgrowth of these collaborative projects.

“About three years ago, I had a need to focus inward because I was starting to doubt my own voice a little bit,” says 39-year-old Gandelsman. “And I needed a challenge for myself.” The Sonatas and Partitas not only require a complete technical arsenal, but a certain awareness of their recorded history, with some 120 versions on Spotify alone. Taking up parts of the cycle for the first time, Gandelsman realized he would need to frame his approach differently.

One inspiration was Martin Hayes, the Irish star fiddler. “He’s a magician with the bow,” says Gandelsman. “Martin has a way of bowing that’s so organic and magical that he really gets into this state of being, which translates to the audience. I thought about his bow technique a lot when I was playing the gigues in the second and third partitas, for example.” A fiddler’s touch may also be discerned in the mock-improvisatory movements of the First Partita in B minor, with its emphasis on small bow strokes.


Another subtle muse is the revered banjo player Béla Fleck, who has appeared with Brooklyn Rider on two original pieces, and who himself has played Bach transcriptions. “I was thinking about how he gets around the banjo,” says Gandelsman. “When seeing somebody play on the banjo, you see the left hand in a chordal position, which makes a ton of sense on the violin. It also led me to make choices about fingering.”

Bach’s solo violin works have largely sidestepped the period-instrument orthodoxy common elsewhere in the Baroque repertoire, and string players routinely mix and match period- and modern-instrument approaches. Gandelsman strung his modern violin with gut strings while using a modern transitional bow. Vibrato is kept to a minimum. “In terms of pressure, you can’t press into the string too much,” he says. “The feel of dance goes through all of the partitas. Even the fugues have that feel in them. The bow dictates a certain approach, which I was very happy to explore.”

“The feel of dance goes through all of the partitas. Even the fugues have that feel in them. The bow dictates a certain approach, which I was very happy to explore.”

—Johnny Gandelsman

Raised in a musical family in Russia and Israel, Gandelsman became conscious of the Romantic school of Bach performance through teachers including Shlomo Mintz (who recorded the Sonatas and Partitas in the 1980s) and Maya Glezarova, the late doyenne of the Russian violin school. As a teenager, Gandelsman won medals at the Menuhin and Kreisler competitions, and in 1995 emigrated to the US where he studied with Jascha Brodsky and Arnold Steinhardt at the Curtis Institute of Music. After graduation—and four years working at a Manhattan wine shop—he reconnected with Curtis colleagues and embarked on a more eclectic,
collaborative career path.

In 2013, the Helicon Foundation, a New York chamber-music presenter, invited Gandelsman to perform the Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, with the provision that he play on gut strings with a Baroque bow. More Bach-focused recitals followed, including house concerts in his Brooklyn neighborhood, and at Bargemusic, the floating concert series on the Brooklyn waterfront. “What I like about Johnny is he has a wonderful focus, and he puts all of his life experiences into the music,” says Mark Peskanov, Bargemusic’s executive and artistic director, and a colleague of 20 years. “When he’s approaching those dance movements in Bach, it means something to him that it doesn’t mean to others.”


Indeed, with so much separating Gandelsman’s current approach to Bach from his childhood studies in the edition by Ivan Galamian, he had to undo some “muscle memory.” “Something you learn as a kid was so strong that to undo those things required a certain amount of effort,” he admits. “That entire approach to playing involved covering all of the open strings as much as possible. However, because I vibrate very little, if at all, in these pieces, the open string became an amazing friend. It added all of this resonance.”

Johnny Gandelsman. Photo by Shervin Lainez

The fugue from the Third Sonata in C major was one of two pieces that Gandelsman had never studied until very recently. “When I was approaching it I was terrified,” he says, referring to its 350-bar length (likely the longest fugue Bach ever wrote), and dense chromatic subject that’s turned upside-down midway through. Gandelsman noted how Kayhan Kalhor, the Iranian kamancheh virtuoso, plays scalar patterns in Indian and Persian classical music. “I was thinking about how Kayhan moves between point A and point B when he improvises,” says Gandelsman, who performs with Kalhor in the Silk Road Ensemble. “When you’re aware of the cycles, you can see from point A to point B. Instead of having a four-bar phrase, you might have a 32-bar phrase.”

The album is a product not only of influences, but also of logistical perseverance. Gandelsman recorded much of it at MSR Studios in Manhattan in January 2015. When the violinist and his recording engineer, Alex Venguer, reviewed the results a few months later, “we realized there were some things we had to re-record.” But what could have been a routine patch session became more complicated. MSR Studios, which had been plagued by noisy construction in its neighborhood, had shut its doors.


“We had to figure out how to do it, where to go, and how to match the sound, so it doesn’t feel like a completely different space,” says Gandelsman, whose stress was compounded by another factor: He had raised over $33,000 from 300 backers on Kickstarter, and some donors were naturally eager to hear the results. Eventually the recording was finished at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York, where Venguer and Gandelsman applied some studio wizardry to mask any differences in room ambience. Audiophiles can scrutinize the results in a three-disc vinyl edition, along with CD and digital releases.


With several all-Bach recitals planned around the release, Gandelsman emphasizes the need to get in a zone when performing the Sonatas and Partitas. And he admits that building stamina takes time when you’re not a fulltime soloist (when we spoke, he was preparing for another album-release tour, for Brooklyn Rider’s Spontaneous Symbols). “I tried to play one, then play two together, then play three together, and see how it feels,” he says of the individual works. “For concert violinists who do this all the time, they might have quicker ways to get in the zone. For those who don’t do that 100 days a year, it may take a little bit longer, but it’s a very worthwhile process, for sure.”