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Joshua Bell Does It Again

available at Amazon
French Impressions, J. Bell, J. Denk

(released on January 10, 2012)
Sony 88697820262 | 66'58"
Joshua Bell is one of the regulars on the Washington Performing Arts Society roster, a celebrity performer virtually guaranteed to fill the hall every other year. The American violinist's popularity with Washington audiences continues unabated, even though his recitals here are remarkably similar from year to year. This recital, on Monday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, followed the same basic formula as his WPAS appearances in 2008 and 2009: lots of ardent Romantic music from the 19th century, with some forays into the early 20th century and perhaps backward into the 18th. In my recent interview with Bell, he took issue with a question about whether he ever tired of playing the same kind of music all the time, but Bell has made a career out of his lyrical tone, as well as astounding technique. He may be interested in studying historically informed performance practice or even composing his own music, but he obviously knows on which side his bread is buttered.

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.

Other Reviews:

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 rest of the program was well played and all of it beautiful listening, but one often felt that Bell was not quite getting to the bottom of it. Mendelssohn's F major violin sonata had more of Bell's plush legato, especially in the slow movement, and there was no lack of pizzazz in the outrageous third movement's many cascades of notes, but one had the sense that the piece did not always engage Bell's attention. In the ferocious piano part, one wished for a fuller partnership from pianist Sam Haywood, who was not always able to keep up with Bell's sometimes capricious movement. (More than once through the evening, one regretted the absence of Bell's regular partner, Jeremy Denk, who can be even more mercurial than the violinist.) The third violin sonata of Brahms (op. 108) had smoldering intensity, that Brahmsian sense of emotion being held inside, and plenty more of Bell's radiant tone, but the memory of the exquisite Brahms first sonata played by Augustin Hadelich last month kept coming to mind. So did Hadelich's just as virtuosic but much more poetic rendering of the piece Bell offered as an encore, Pablo de Sarasate's blistering showpiece Zigeunerweisen.

The next concert in the WPAS series is a recital by pianist Simone Dinnerstein (January 29, 7 pm), in the Music Center at Strathmore.

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