Pasa Re­views Vi­olin­ist Joshua Bell

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Joshua Bell

Duane Smith Au­di­to­rium, Feb. 3 Even in an age rich in ex­or­bi­tantly ac­com­plished vi­o­lin­ists, Joshua Bell stands out as one of the in­stru­ment’s supreme prac­ti­tion­ers. His Feb. 3 recital at Duane Smith Au­di­to­rium, spon­sored by the Los Alamos Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion, ex­em­pli­fied the com­bi­na­tion of per­sonal charisma, pro­found mu­si­cal­ity, and un­wa­ver­ing se­cu­rity that have made him such an ap­peal­ing artist. As a player he is phys­i­cally demon­stra­tive but not egre­giously histri­onic; he moves with the mu­sic — or, per­haps bet­ter said, the mu­sic seems to move him.

He ex­udes a nat­u­ral sense of warmth in his de­meanor as in his in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and yet there is a pa­tri­cian qual­ity to his mu­sic-mak­ing. One felt it, for ex­am­ple, in Brahms’ Vi­o­lin Sonata No. 3 in D mi­nor, the key­stone of his pro­gram, and par­tic­u­larly in its sec­ond move­ment. It is one of Brahms’ au­tum­nal ada­gios, but among the com­poser’s works of that mode it is un­usual for be­ing so con­densed. In­ter­preters some­times feel in­clined to load it with soul­ful­ness (it is in­deed marked espres­sivo), but Bell chose to present it with re­straint, in the style of a Men­delssoh­nian song with­out words. This fit its con­tours very con­vinc­ingly: a lul­laby rather than a prayer. The sonata’s other move­ments were just as pre­cise and per­sua­sive. The Third Sonata made a po­tent con­trast to the piece that pre­ceded it, Brahms’ C-mi­nor Scherzo. It was his bristling con­tri­bu­tion to the F-A-E Sonata, a com­pos­ite work that three com­posers (Robert Schu­mann, Al­bert Di­et­rich, and Brahms) cob­bled to­gether for their vi­olin­ist-friend Joseph Joachim. Here the youth­ful Brahms seemed to sa­lute Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­phony while sug­gest­ing the di­rec­tion in which his own cre­ativ­ity would lead. The recital had, in fact, started with Beethoven: his rather Mozartean Vi­o­lin Sonata No. 1. It was a wor­thy if un­re­mark­able set­tling-in in­ter­pre­ta­tion to launch the con­cert. Bell in­fused the theme of the vari­a­tions move­ment with par­tic­u­lar warm­heart­ed­ness.

The peo­ple for­merly known as ac­com­pa­nists are now usu­ally re­ferred to as col­lab­o­ra­tive pi­anists, but Sam Hay­wood proved to be an ac­com­pa­nist in the old style, def­er­en­tial to the soloist, al­ways check­ing in with the boss. That kept the spot­light firmly on Bell. He draws gen­er­ously from the vi­o­lin’s broad ex­pres­sive pal­ette but, given his druthers, tends preter­nat­u­rally to­ward a lyri­cal style. His phras­ing is em­phatic and metic­u­lously de­fined with­out ever seem­ing fussy. He stands in the top ranks as a tech­ni­cian, and it would be hard to imag­ine that any­thing ever goes awry for him in per­for­mance.

Af­ter in­ter­mis­sion came two works to which Bell has a per­sonal con­nec­tion. He com­mis­sioned Aaron Jay Ker­nis’s Air, an at­trac­tive slow move­ment of a neoCo­p­lan­desque cast, writ­ten in 1995. More im­pos­ing was Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 for Un­ac­com­pa­nied Vi­o­lin, com­posed in 1923 by one leg­endary vi­olin­ist for an­other, in this case for Ge­orge Enescu. Ysaÿe was a vi­o­lin su­per­star of his day, and one of his pupils was Josef Gin­gold — who, in turn, was the teacher of Joshua Bell. Why Enescu did not play the pre­miere of this fa­mous sonata I can­not say; but, in the event, the first per­for­mance was en­trusted to Gin­gold, in 1928. Our soloist did both his teacher and his grandteacher proud in this im­pos­ing, rhap­sodic work, which is packed with dou­ble-stops and chal­lenges of voic­ing. At one point in this piece, Ysaÿe wrote a six-note chord, for­tis­simo. The vi­o­lin has ex­actly four strings, each ca­pa­ble of sound­ing a sin­gle note. That would make Ysaÿe’s “su­per­chord” phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble, but the best vi­o­lin­ists man­age to cre­ate the req­ui­site il­lu­sion all the same, as Bell did with­out call­ing un­due at­ten­tion to the com­plex­ity.

A gra­cious in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Rach­mani­noff’s Vo­calise (I think it was Mikhail Press’s tran­scrip­tion; the pro­gram didn’t say) pro­vided some lightly melan­choly ear-cleans­ing, and then the mu­si­cians leapt into Sarasate’s Car­men Fan­tasy. Here Bell did pretty much what­ever can be done us­ing tra­di­tional vi­o­lin tech­nique, dis­patch­ing the com­poser’s ridicu­lously dif­fi­cult de­mands with aplomb: har­mon­ics, mul­ti­ple stop­ping, play­ing in thirds and oc­taves, pizzi­catos in both hands, light­ning-quick po­si­tion changes, bal­anc­ing of dis­parate reg­is­ters — of­ten with chal­lenges piled atop one an­other in fleet suc­ces­sion. It was an ex­trav­a­ganza of im­mac­u­late bow­ing, and even in the midst of the on­slaught he tended to­ward medium-im­pact at­tacks that pro­moted el­e­gant tone rather than brute force.

The Car­men Fan­tasy is es­sen­tially an ex­tended en­core, and Bell wisely chose not to of­fer any fur­ther mu­sic. Cer­tainly the au­di­ence would have been happy for him to keep go­ing, and he knows plenty of bon­bons he could have tossed off. But he had planned and ex­e­cuted a con­cert that was well-rounded and com­plete, and it is hard to imag­ine that any­thing else would have en­hanced the even­ing from a mu­si­cal point of view. May other mu­si­cians take a cue from the master. — James M. Keller

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