Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood at Carnegie Hall

Sonata in F for Violin and Piano
Sonata in C minor for Piano and Violin, Op.30/2
Sonata in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, Op.27/3 (Ballade)
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano

Joshua Bell (violin) & Sam Haywood (piano)

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 14 November, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Lisa Marie MazzuccoMendelssohn composed his F major Violin Sonata in 1838, the year he conceived the evergreen E minor Violin Concerto. Although he was unhappy with the Sonata, leading him to abandon it, the violin part is stylistically quite similar to the concerto. Yehudi Menuhin discovered the work a century and more later. If it lacks the emotional depth of the concerto, Joshua Bell strove to make each phrase meaningful. The opening Allegro vivace is the work’s weakest point, its melodies bordering on cheesiness, but Bell portrayed an infectious sense of love for it. Sam Haywood was heavy-handed, obscuring some of Bell’s phrasing subtleties. Bell’s tone, usually gloriously rich, sounded quite muted in the softer passages. His propensity to maximize every climax makes Bell a joy to hear in Romantic-era pieces, but it did not serve him well in the Beethoven. One wished he would rein in the unbridled passion and give some thought to the music’s structure in order to give the pinnacles their proper meaning. In the opening Allegro con brio, Bell’s tendency to portray emotion through body movements as well as sound was distracting – sudden loud dynamics lost their impact with his premature lurching. He played it straight in the Adagio cantabile, keeping the feeling simple and pure, but lost its magic. The spark returned in the lively scherzo, and the finale’s coda was thrillingly intense. However, there seemed to be an emotional disconnect between the performers; Haywood came across as a stellar technician but his phrasing in solos was rushed.

The specter of Eugène Ysaÿe loomed over the concert. He was the violinist in the Carnegie Hall premieres of the Beethoven and Franck sonatas in 1894 and 1895 respectively, and was the dedicatee of the latter work. Ysaÿe’s six Sonatas, inspired by the unaccompanied violin literature of J. S. Bach, are a bed-rock in the repertory. Bell played the best known of these with a huge color range in bowing, exquisitely tuned double-stopping, and exhilarating technical confidence despite a slight fumble during a run of tenths near the end. Though his Stradivarius’s tone was big and bright, it lacked its customary richness and continued to sound slightly muted in softer moments. Bell’s emotive earnestness was ideally suited to the fervently emotional César Franck Sonata. The breathless beauty in quieter sections held the listener on edge as Bell made each climax as strong as possible without losing interpretative coherence. His instrument’s tone finally opened up into a lush richness in the ‘Recitativo’. The finale’s theme was a breath of fresh air, and led its way into ever-growing sections of passionate intensity. Haywood’s heavy-handedness was more of an asset here, yet his phrasing seemed cold in comparison to Bell’s excess. As an encore, Bell played his arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, further intense melodrama to cap off an evening of ardor.

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