Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk at Wigmore Hall

Sonata for Violin and Piano
Sonata No.3 in D minor for Violin and Piano
Sonata in A minor for Solo Violin, Op.27/2 (Obsession)
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano

Joshua Bell (violin) & Jeremy Denk (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 26 March, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Joshua BellJoshua Bell has a reputation for providing considered, beautifully toned interpretations of the classics. His tone is certainly helped by his using the sumptuous ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius of 1713, once played by the great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman. This is one of the world’s finest fiddles.

Bell opened this Wigmore Hall recital with the rarely played Janáček Violin Sonata. The rich tone was immediately in evidence, as was a lot of swooping, swooning phrasing and swaying from side-to-side on the platform. Unfortunately pianist Jeremy Denk failed to provide sufficient attack and this left a very generalised impression of the opening movement. In ‘Ballado’, the main theme was sung with superb use of variable vibrato and Bell’s intonation was particularly pure; the Allegretto had real attack and some very incisive and sforzando playing. As in the first movement, the finale displayed the use of singing tone but no true legato. Bell comes from that generation of string players and singers who eschew even marginal portamento and a joining of notes to achieve a seamless line. This restricts his expressive armoury.

Jeremy Denk. Photograph: J. Henry FairBrahms’s late D minor Sonata is a masterwork. Bell certainly caught the enigmatic nature of the opening Allegro; there were some very precise trills in a songful account of the Adagio and the scherzo-like third movement hasdreal sway and fantasy. But both here and in the finale the tempo was too slow: they are respectively marked Poco presto and Presto agitato. The finale, while powerfully agitated, lacked true fire and a sense of danger.

Of the six solo sonatas of Ysaÿe, the second of the group doesn’t really suit Bell’s strengths: the violin certainly sounded wonderful in itself, but the two central lentos lacked real emotion or any true sense of fantasy; although the third movement’s closing ‘Dies irae’ quotes were sustained at an exquisite triple and quadruple piano. The last movement is marked ‘Furioso’, whcih Bell simply doesn’t do. Here you need a real showman who can let his hair down.

Finally there was the Franck, in which the pianist came into his own. In the Janáček and Brahms Denk had seemed slightly diffident, but not here; indeed, he was often more expressive than Bell. The opening Allegretto was too slow, with the introductory piano chords almost disjointed, but after this both artists gave a vibrant account of the work. Yet there was still a sense that Bell occasionally skated over the surface. In the second movement he needed to dig into the strings, although the final accelerando was brilliant. The finale was very powerful and here Bell, even when the piano was at fff, soared his way through the music.

There was one encore, the ‘Méditation’ from Massenet’s opera “Thaïs”. Here a bit of old-fashioned moulding of the line would not have gone amiss; the sound was beautiful but lacked that last ounce of magic.

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