Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk at Carnegie Hall

Sonata in C minor for Violin and Piano, BWV1017
Sonata in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op.75
Sonata in A minor for Violin and Piano, Op.105
Sonata for Violin and Piano

Joshua Bell (violin) & Jeremy Denk (piano)

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 24 February, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Joshua BellJoshua Bell had a piercing yet warm tone that was consistent, with only subtle variations in timbre. Fortunately, this tonal quality is so high that one would never tire of hearing the Bell sound.

In the Bach, the keyboard part is treated as an equal partner to the violin. In the first movement, Bell’s sound was on the lighter end of the spectrum, which Jeremy Denk finely balanced on the piano. The piece felt less together with the timing in the second movement, when the violin line is at odds with the keyboard part. Instead of reveling in the contrapuntal differences, one felt as if there were two different compositions occurring simultaneously. The dynamical balance also was problematic, with the keyboard sometimes drowning out the violin. Things improved in the third movement, when even Bell’s pianissimos were clearly audible, but the disparity in the parts again became jarring in the finale, with Bell being overpowered by Denk, whose faster passagework was often blurry.

Saint-Saëns’s Sonata was a change for the better. Bell was passionate from the start, and his brilliant tone and ever-passionate playing superbly suited the piece’s Romanticism. Bell’s sublime technique was exemplified by his mastery of intonation. When the first movement’s main theme returned in the recapitulation, Bell slightly flattened the notes without becoming discordant, lending the diminished triad an extra level of tension. Although the energy level was reduced in the pastoral slow movement, one’s attention remained ever focused on Bell’s glorious tone. Denk, who had overpowered Bell in the first movement, played with sensitivity in the impressionistic piano accompaniment. Bell showcased his exquisite bow control in the following movement’s up-bow staccato passages, and he seemed to have an endless bow in the Trio section’s legatos. The final movement’s moto perpetuo was a showstopper; Bell playing with unabashed romanticism in the lyrical passages. Denk displayed solid technical skills.

Jeremy Denk. Photograph: J. Henry FairThe lingering balance problems disappeared completely in the concert’s second half. In the Schumann, Bell kept up the passion but even his fine tone could not provide direction to the meandering lines in this work. The ensemble playing was first-rate, particularly in the finale’s imitative sections, when the piano and violin at last played with a pleasing symmetry of dynamics and phrasing.

The Ravel, introducing a new harmonic landscape, was refreshing. Ravel considered the violin and piano to be fundamentally at odds, and his writing highlighted their independence. Ironically, the two instruments continued to play with the unity that became apparent in the Schumann. The interweaving of the lines was smooth, and the piano matched the violin in its tonal otherworldliness. The balance remained excellent. The second movement’s jazz ambience was well portrayed. In the lyrical violin melodies, Bell had the cool effortlessness of a blues singer, and Denk was grand in the piano solos over the banjo-like pizzicatos. The final movement was nicely scaled, with the violin growing to the raw country fiddling climax.

One of the most remarkable things about Bell is that he appears to be as fine an actor as he is a musician. His facial expressions and bodily movements were extremely evocative, and added to the thrill of the performance. In his encore piece, he seemed to embody his idol, Fritz Kreisler, in a rendering of his Slavonic Fantasy. Bell’s tone became sweeter, and his phrasing more old-fashioned and Romantic, without losing the brilliance of his own sound.

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