French Impressions, J. Bell, J. Denk
(released on January 10, 2012)
Sony 88697820262 | 66'58"
The highlight of the evening was an extraordinary reading of Eugène Ysaÿe's "Sonata-Ballada," or D minor solo violin sonata (op. 27/3). Bell gave the piece a compelling narrative scope, telling a melancholy story while he mastered the daunting double-stops with flawless intonation and sure-fingered speed in the fast passages. Ysaÿe dedicated the third sonata in the set of six to violinist and composer George Enescu, but it was Bell's teacher at Indiana University, Josef Gingold, who gave the first performance, and Bell clearly understands the piece so well because of that connection. One hopes that Bell has plans to record the entire set soon.
Ravel's G major violin sonata, last admired in these pages from Dmitry Sitkovetsky in 2004, has found a fine champion in Bell, who has recorded it on his new CD with pianist Jeremy Denk. It is an aimless, enigmatic piece in many ways, the first movement content to wander through a smoky atmosphere, with a few blue notes here and there and long melodies for Bell to spin out his silvery thread of soft legato, ending on a seemingly eternal held high note that in Bell's hands took one's breath away. The second movement was a nod to the story, too good to be anything but apocryphal but repeated by Bell with good reason, that Ravel, learning of how much money Gershwin made, said perhaps he should be studying with Gershwin and not the reverse. Ravel called the second movemnt "Blues," but it is little more than a slightly bland mimicking of the jazz sounds that Gershwin used to much greater effect (although harder to appreciate in Heifetz's arrangement of Gershwin's preludes for piano, given a somewhat clunky performance by Bell after the Ravel). The third movement's "Perpetuum mobile" was a constant, buzzing stream of notes. In the piano part of this piece, completed in 1927, are the building blocks of Olivier Messiaen's mature vocabulary, in complex harmonic clusters made of extended-triad structures and even in hints of birdsong.
Stephen Brookes, Music review: Joshua Bell at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, January 25)
Olivia Flores, Joshua Bell Was Great; Houston's Audience Not So Much (Houston Press, January 23)
Violinist Joshua Bell: 'French Impressions,' Yesterday And Today (All Things Considered, January 16)
Julie Amacher, Why Is Ravel's Violin Sonata like a Croissandwich? (Minnesota Public Radio, January 11)
The next concert in the WPAS series is a recital by pianist Simone Dinnerstein (January 29, 7 pm), in the Music Center at Strathmore.