Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood at Alice Tully Hall

Sonata No.2 in A for Violin and Piano, Op.100
Fantasy in C, D934
Sonata No.2 in G for Violin and Piano, Op.13

Joshua Bell (violin) & Sam Haywood (piano)

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 30 January, 2011
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Joshua Bell. Photograph: www.joshuabell.comIn a recent interview accompanying a “Live from Lincoln Center” performance, Joshua Bell spoke of his adulation of the great 19th-century violinist (and, perhaps, playboy) Pablo de Sarasate, whom Bell described as the “rock star” of his time. Bell said he thought of himself as being born a century too late, past the era of the idolization of classical violinists. Bell is certainly a champion of music from that century. However, the three main pieces on the Romantic program were as varied as the period gets.

Brahms’s intimate Second Violin Sonata employs quotations from his songs. Bell embraced the lyricism with bowing that correlated the phrasing to the breath. The initial movement grew gradually in intensity without becoming overblown. Some of the finest moments were the subtlest, such as when Bell forsook vibrato completely at the end of that opening movement, and with the subtly rendered dynamics from both players in the Andante. The finale allowed for larger swells and mood changes, yet the players were always mindful of the balance, both in comparison to the more subdued emotional level that had come before, and also between each other in volume. Sam Haywood’s performance here and throughout was notable for its warmth and expressivity, displaying a quiet confidence in the shadow of the violinist’s stardom.

It is hard to hear the opening of Schubert’s Fantasy without imagining his later String Quintet. Both begin with a long-held string note of C, and the same initial harmonic change. However, the natures of these works diverge from thereafter to the detriment of the Fantasy. However, Bell gave the work such a finely nuanced performance that this piece no longer sounded like second-rate Schubert. In the initial of the four interlinked movements, Bell’s C grew from nothing into the longest of phrases, with the most seamless of bow changes and the longest of crescendos, making the melody absolutely compelling. In the second movement, each repetition of the theme added a layer of complexity, with slightly different articulation and tone, growing to spectacular intensity. The third is easily the most difficult to execute, as its fast runs and technical complexity are at odds with the simplicity of the melody. It is easy for the violinist to destroy the mood by allowing the work to become a flyaway virtuosic showpiece. Bell did the opposite, shaping each line exquisitely, and making each note meaningful. It remained light and allowed the beauty of the melodic simplicity to dominate. The finale took the piece to a different place, and the players perfectly captured the triumphant mood.

Bell’s 1713 ex-Huberman ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius was wonderfully responsive in all moods and registers, yet unfortunately was haunted by an annoying buzz in heavily articulated G-string passages, an issue that resurfaced with more frequency in Grieg’s Second Violin Sonata, music that captures the Norwegian essence in its dance-like passages and abrupt changes between light and dark. However, unlike its more-often-heard successor, the melodies are less memorable and the work less cohesive. Bell was best in its impassioned and soulful gypsy-like passages. In the simpler melodies, he milked the emotionality to the hilt, to the point of sounding cheesy; understandable, for to downplay the intensity of this work would only highlight its inferior nature. Yet the tonal quality overall seemed quite black and white, a real difference from the full rainbow he had previously painted. The build-up of intensity towards the sonata’s final notes was so great that there was nowhere to go, and his fabulous instrument sounded strained by the end.

Bell offered three encores, all from his preferred era. Sibelius’s Romance was simple and lyrical; although there was a bit too much portamento, the color scheme was more varied than in the Grieg. Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brillante calls for melodrama and fireworks, which is right up Bell’s alley. He gave a definitive performance of the work, although the G-string buzz made too many re-appearances. An arrangement of Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne concluded the recital, Bell displaying subtly nuanced phrasing in the beginning and rich intensity by the end.

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