Pasa Reviews Violinist 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