A study of contrast, Joshua Bell can strike the attitude of a rock star in one moment, then a poet in the next.
Performing in recital with pianist Sam Haywood at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles Tuesday night, Bell fashioned a program of pieces that connected him with his late violin teacher, Joseph Gingold, who would have been 106 on Oct. 28. Bell described the lineage of his violin family -- "Wieniawski taught Ysaÿe, Ysaÿe taught Gingold, and...I don't belong in this sentence."
A modest statement, but refuted by the evidence. Beyond his star power and dazzling violin playing, Bell is our living link to that time, those styles, those stories, that tradition.
The recital began with Vitali's Chaconne, a piece that begins as a simple harmonic progression and grows increasingly complex as it unfolds. Bell called it "my favorite piece, at age 11," a work that many great violinists of the 20th century (like Jascha Heifetz) performed but that has fallen out of fashion. From the perspective of a violinist, the piece is frequently assigned to students, who can find it riddled with land mines and hard to fit with the piano part. Of course, these guys had no trouble fitting their duples with triples and synchronizing their syncopations. Bell and Haywood showed this piece for the gem it can be: beautiful lines spilling like water, crystal-clear filigree, music that sighs and declaims and builds to a shivery frenzy, a piece that ends in a victory parade of perfect octaves.
Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata was full of the drama and suspense that have made this piece a favorite, as well as an inspiration for literature and film. The leisurely invitation of the opening, with Bell's deliciously in-tune double-stops, launches into breakneck action. This was an up-tempo Kreutzer. Bell said this was the first major piece he studied with Gingold; he knows it well. He gave himself over completely to this mercurial work, bursting with notes one minute and quieting to near stillness the next. After the first movement, the Angeleno audience clapped with great enthusiasm. After living here 16 years, I still don't clap between movements, but I smile at the idea that a concert has attracted a good many people who do.
The second movement opens with the piano playing one of the most appealing melodies ever written, then passing it to the violin. Here and throughout the movement, Bell spun the melody with great skill, giving every line a sense of inevitable direction. The movement is a theme with variations, repeating itself many times. Bell made a special event of each variation, and I became increasingly convinced that if he were to spend an entire concert playing a solitary note over and over, he'd find a way to make it endlessly interesting. The third movement was full of playful interaction, with a lot of humor in the way Bell kept sneaking up with the melody and then ducking back under to accompany when the the piano took it over.
Besides the Beethoven, other main piece on the recital was the Sonata by César Franck, a piece which Bell recorded in 2012 with the pianist Jeremy Denk for an album called French Impressions. Written by Franck in 1886 as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe, It's a piece that certainly features the piano as much as the violin, if not more, and Haywood brought great skill and amazing chops to the endeavor. In the stormy second movement the piano overpowered the violin somewhat and Bell seemed to be working hard for his sound throughout. That said, he knows how to get what he wants. If anyone needed a primer in the many speeds and widths of vibrato that an artist can employ (including none at all, at times) to produce sound color, Bell's vast repertoire was on full display for this piece. The final movement of the sonata begins as a gentle canon and ends in more of an animated chase - they nearly tripped over each other getting to the finish line, but all's well that ends well!
Three show pieces concluded the evening, almost like planned encores, in place of Sarasate's "Carmen," as was listed in the program. Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 was a familiar virtuoso piece. Bell played Kreisler's "Liebesleid" (Love's Sorrow) in honor of Gingold, explaining that the picture of Kreisler that hung over Gingold's piano now hangs next to Bell's piano in his home. And in introducing Wieniawski's "Scherzo Tarantelle," he described it as a dance that one does after being bitten by a tarantula, and that he last performed it a child on the Johnny Carson show, during which his peg slipped and he basically had to get by on three strings!
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