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Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell, violinist (photo courtesy of Sony Music)
It was Nicola Benedetti's misfortune to have had her recital scheduled the evening before that of Joshua Bell, hosted by Washington Performing Arts Society at Strathmore on Wednesday night. The comparison was damning, as Bell's technique is practically unassailable and he was playing a program of late 19th- and early 20th-century music, in which he excels as an interpreter. If it is Romantic, ardent, passionate, sweet, Bell at his best will draw the perfect soaring or sotto voce line from his Gibson ex-Huberman, a 1713 Stradivarius instrument that is matched beautifully to his strengths. Of all of his recent appearances in the area -- his 2008 recital at the Kennedy Center, his unannounced concert in the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station in 2007, and his 2006 concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- this was the best program and the strongest performance.

One criticism that could be raised against Bell's approach to music is that his tone is too consistently pretty, that after listening to him play for two hours, one's teeth hurt from all that sugary legato. Indeed, the strongest works of the evening were the more bitingly dissonant ones, especially Leoš Janáček's violin sonata, which opened the concert. With fewer long-breathed melodies to indulge in, Bell embraced the impetuous speech-like character of this music, like so much of Janáček's music influenced by his study of the rhythms of Czech speech and his study of folk music. The chattering motifs of the first movement were balanced by the profound calm of the second, and the raucous roulades and modal, clownish tunes of the third. Bell's attention to using a full range of dynamics and tone colors was matched by his expressive partner, pianist Jeremy Denk, who kept pace with Bell through it all. One hopes that a recording of the work is being planned.

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Franck Sonata, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Bell, in his breezy Midwestern way (being from Michigan I can say that), spoke about the A minor sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe (op. 27, no. 2) he played to start the second half. My guest for the concert was my doctoral dissertation adviser, an authority on Gregorian chant, and we were both tickled to hear Bell explain the composer's use of the Dies irae sequence that runs through this sonata, even playing the opening section of the chant melody. This was everything that Benedetti's Ysaÿe selection was not, from the suave multiple-stop passages to the eerie Dies irae quotations to the tone-filled pizzicati, all of it adding up to a technical tour de force of Mephistophelian proportions.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Violinist Joshua Bell, Pretty Darn Good (Washington Post, February 6)

T. L. Ponick, Bell, Denk share their virtuosity (Washington Times, February 6)
The third Brahms sonata (D minor, op. 108) -- which also put Benedetti's Brahms to shame -- and the Franck A major sonata veered close to treacle but, while definitely sweet, were not so saccharine as to be indigestible. A pervading hushed quality kept the Brahms from disappearing over the edge, as did Bell's tendency to push fast tempi to the breaking point, with Denk happy to follow him off the cliff. The same qualities prevailed in the Franck, which was composed for Ysaÿe as Bell pointed out in his remarks, also noting that one of Ysaÿe's students was Josef Gingold, who happens to have taught Joshua Bell. After a mostly delicate first movement, the rhapsodic excesses of the second caused some well-deserved applause to break out in the audience. The third movement was the most affecting, a tense, interior monologue that blossomed into that recurring melody, played sotto voce against the pastel-hued piano's shimmer. Bell drove the final movement too quickly, leading Denk to miss a few notes here and there in the rush, a rapidity that cheated the sonata's sense of closing. A single encore, the famous "Meditation" from Thaïs, was just the guilty treat cloying that my sweet tooth needed.

The next great virtuoso invited by Washington Performing Arts Society is pianist Evgeny Kissin, who will play a recital in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (March 1, 4 pm).

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