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Joshua Bell Surprises

available at Amazon
Bach, Violin Concertos (inter alia), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, J. Bell
(Sony, 2014)
Joshua Bell's recital, presented by Washington Performing Arts on Tuesday night, did not even make the cut in my concert picks for the month of March. The American violinist comes to Washington in most years, most recently for a public performance at Union Station and the National Symphony Orchestra's season opener and again later in the season. WPAS has presented him in recital every other year or so, most recently in 2012 -- twice -- 2009, and 2008. As always, this recital sold out again, no matter how often he plays here, so my recommending it or not was beside the point, but a critic can be excused for feeling a little jaded about another performance by Joshua Bell. At least he was not playing the Franck sonata again, and the Brahms on the program was not the third sonata again -- these thoughts passed through my mind as I convinced myself to attend.

A gifted performer will surprise you, though, and Bell has turned a corner in my appreciation. As he told me wanted to do in a 2012 interview, he has moved in some new directions. His new recording of Bach concertos with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, where he serves as both soloist and leader, shows a willingness to explore beyond his comfort zone of Romantic music. His opener on this recital, Beethoven's A minor violin sonata (op. 23), did not show much progress in the Classical period for Bell. True, the outer movements were quite fast, even a little wild, especially the finale, in which Bell seemed to race ahead of his pianist, Sam Haywood. The sforzandi had savage bite, and the slow movement was sweet, but the whole thing failed to transport, ending up feeling a little plain. Little worry, as it turned out, because two Romantic masterworks proved more vital, more effusive even than what Bell often brings to this sort of music.

Bell slashed through Grieg's first sonata (F major, op. 8) with broad, exciting strokes, his full and throaty tone enlivened by a mercurial rubato reminiscent of folk music, creating volcanic outbursts between sweet statements of the soft theme. The middle movement was perfect for Bell's trademarked soave sound, a perfect ribbon of sweet sound, with the B section treated like a folk fiddle reel. Again, Bell may have pushed the third movement slightly too fast, causing some alignment and intonation problems here and there, but the sense of unpredictability was also a pleasing effect. (It was a sign of how engaging the playing that paramedics removing a patron in a health crisis during the end of the first movement barely registered on me.)

Other Articles:

Patrick Rucker, Violinist Joshua Bell meets his match in pianist Sam Haywood (Washington Post, April 2)

Roizy Waldman, The Violin that Witnessed History (Ami Magazine, March 29)

Emily Cary, ‘Meat and potatoes’ balance at Kennedy Center when violinist Bell and pianist Haywood take the stage (Washington Times, March 29)

Libby Hanssen, Joshua Bell, Sam Haywood display virtuosity and partnership in concert at Helzberg Hall (Kansas City Star, March 15)

One knew that the Brahms first sonata (G major, op. 78) was going to be good from the very first phrase, where Bell struck just the right combination of hesitation and smoldering tone, and indeed this Brahms was everything that Raphaël Sévère had missed the previous evening. Every aspect of the violin part was ideal, down to the singing double-stop version of the slow movement's main theme, indicating that Bell could have a top-notch recording of the Brahms sonatas in the offing. My only reservation would be the choice of pianist, as Haywood did not do great things with the piano-only introduction to the second movement, and his playing, while technically able, felt too shy, too subservient for Brahms, especially the rather weak sound of the bass.

Bartók's first rhapsody was a nice match for the folk music aspects heard in other parts of the program. The first movement had an acidic edge, and both movements had that rhythmic flexibility that is a part of the folk music that so inspired the composer. Bell's technique was near-infallible in the many dazzling double-stop and off-string effects, but the piece worked because it made such musical sense. The icing on the cake was the choice of two encores that were completely opposite my expectations, beginning with Bell's own arrangement of Chopin's Nocturne No. 20 (C# minor, op. posth) and followed by Brahms's first Hungarian Dance.

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