One of the ‘cleanest’ players of our age, Joshua Bell should be a natural for Bach, and so it proves. Directing an orchestra of 19 strings (6-5-4-3-1), with John Constable at the harpsichord, he gives beautiful performances of the two official Violin Concertos. Both solo and orchestral playing is patently influenced by ‘period’-instrument practice: chording is very crisp, vibrato is not overdone, rhythms are well defined and faster movements are never heavy. So those of a nervous disposition, as far as authenticism is concerned, may feel that they are getting the best of both worlds.
In the A minor Concerto, Bell sets a fast tempo for the opening Allegro but it is not too fast – at least two of his rivals, Hilary Hahn with modern instruments and Rachel Podger with ‘period’ ones, sometimes make me feel that I am being rushed off my feet. Bell gives a searching, thoughtful account of the Andante and the finale is a joyous romp. In the E major Concerto, the opening Allegro again has an excellent tempo, while the Adagio finds Bell at his most inward. The expression, in this movement as in its A minor counterpart, comes from the tension of the musical line and from tonal shadings and delicate variations in dynamics, not from any pulling-about of the tempo. The finale is rhythmically sturdy at a nice brisk tempo. In both works, Constable, who has been known to over-elaborate when playing continuo, is on his best behaviour.
The beginning of the ‘Chaconne’ startled me, as I had not read the small print. Bell is playing the arrangement made by Mendelssohn, with a piano accompaniment filling in the bass that Bach merely suggested, but the violinist has asked Julian Milone to orchestrate it; so what you hear first is the orchestral bass line. It is all done quite tastefully and Bell plays his part very well. Similarly in the ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’, we hear Schumann’s arrangement with, this time, the piano part orchestrated by Milone. Bell feels that he now has two more Bach pieces to play with the Academy, of which he is music director.
In the famous ‘Air’ (on the G String), Bell plays the first-violin line as a solo, with some tasteful decorations. The recordings of all the pieces are excellent. In the face of so much good musicianship, I do not wish to appear churlish, but there would have been plenty of room on the disc for the Two-Violin Concerto. I hope Bell will get round to that work, with a suitable partner.