Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk at Barbican Hall

Sonata in F for Violin and Piano
Sonata No.2 in G for Violin and Piano, Op.13
Gershwin, arr. Heifetz
Three Preludes
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano

Joshua Bell (violin) & Jeremy Denk (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 9 May, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Lisa Marie MazzuccoWhatever Joshua Bell puts in his coffee must be potent stuff. He tours exhaustively – concerts in Bologna and Madrid immediately preceded this London stop, with Paris and Berlin following closely – and yet he showed no sign of flagging during this demanding Barbican Hall recital. Of course, it helps to have a close collaborator to share the load, and pianist Jeremy Denk is certainly that. The two are a genuine duo with no sense of Denk occupying a supporting role. Their programme ranged more widely than it appeared it might on paper: three greatly contrasting sonatas and a little Americana to spice up the mix.

Jeremy Denk. Photograph: J. Henry FairThe relative rarity that is Mendelssohn’s F major Sonata (1838) opened the evening. It languished unperformed until taken up by Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s. It was the composer’s second such work for the violin, but it remained unloved and unnumbered. It isn’t one of Mendelssohn’s most memorable or melodically distinguished works, but Bell and Denk revealed its considerable charm. The calm and devotional quality of the Adagio was especially appealing; Bell and Denk moved through its restrained elaborations with graceful sensitivity. Perhaps the rapid fluttering of the finale came off as a touch rushed, but Bell contrasted its bubbling activity with moments of weighty tone at the bottom of the violin’s range that leant depth to an unfairly discarded piece.

Grieg prized his Second Violin Sonata much more highly. He presented it to Liszt, along with his Piano Concerto, and it seems to have impressed the great Hungarian. It’s a fairly early work (composed when Grieg was 24) but it displays so much of what made Grieg such a distinctive composer: the immaculately voice piano-writing; the markedly Nordic idiom; and the unforced fluency of the melodic writing. Denk excelled in the piano part, utilising his immaculate peddling and exquisite dynamic control. Bell answered with playing that was at turns rough and forceful, but which sung sweetly when required.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes demonstrated their composer’s skill in drawing on his national flavour as assuredly as Grieg had done with his. Jascha Heifetz’s arrangements of the Preludes (which Gershwin composed for solo piano) adapt them convincingly for the violin. Bell altered his sound nicely, playing with a hard-edged tone appropriate for Gershwin’s suave and jazzy sound. Only in the final Prelude did the duo fail to gel; a shame, as Bell’s plaintive honesty and Denk’s delicate touch had made the second piece a treat.

César Franck’s evergreen Violin Sonata was given an expansive but focused reading. It was originally presented as a wedding gift to the distinguished Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, but Bell and Denk showed it to be a troubled and brooding work, very far removed from the joys of young marriage. They took their time spinning out the broad first movement. The Allegro that followed was suitably tumultuous, but it was in the ‘Recitativo-Fantasia’ that the musicians pushed deepest into the dark heart of the work. The duo managed a rapt intimacy that made the large space of the Barbican Hall feel like the natural place for a chamber-music recital.

It was the moody and dazzling gymnastics of Bell’s encore, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, that capped a terrific concert from a perfectly attuned partnership, but the Franck had been the real heart of the matter.

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