Joshua Bell has enjoyed an exalted position in the pantheon of modern violinists for at least two decades, even though he is still only in his mid-40s. He continues to deserve that ranking, both for the undiminished strength of his technique, and for his exceptionally broad range of stylistic sympathies. Sometimes that breadth leads him to champion a piece that has little musical value — but it’s surely better for a player to love too much music than too little. And his explorations have in no way caused his grasp of the core repertoire to lose its focus.
An agreeably light touch prevailed in his well-attended recital at Benaroya Hall on Wednesday. The lightness was to be found not only in playing that emphasized a silvery sweetness over the sort of “fat” tone that some violinists cultivate, but also in the shape and content of the program he had devised.
Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, replete with supposedly diabolical technical challenges that seemed child’s play for Bell, really amounts to dazzling bravura and not a great deal more. The treats he chose for the other end of the evening, announced from the stage like semiofficial encores, were a wistful little Melody by Tchaikovsky and Wieniawski’s sprightly “Polonaise brillante,” which was dashed off with infectious brio. And as for what might be called the classical and romantic “main course” between appetizer and dessert, we were given a relatively understated Beethoven sonata and one of Stravinsky’s least prickly, least aggressively “modern” pieces.
Beethoven’s unassumingly lyrical Opus 96 sonata is far less often heard than the heaven-storming and infallibly crowd-pleasing “Kreutzer.” A charismatic virtuoso with plenty of charm and the chops to tackle any technical challenge who yet approaches his performances with unwavering seriousness, Bell accorded it a reading that duly stressed the inward quality of Beethoven’s last essay in the genre — for “lightness” here is a matter of texture and dynamic force rather than of artistic stature.
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The violinist was partnered with crisp incisiveness by Sam Haywood, an evidently gifted young English pianist. I heard some complaints afterward that the piano was too loud in this work, and even that the complainers “couldn’t hear the violin,” but there was no such problem where I was sitting. I thought the balance pleasantly indicative of a violinist not eaten up with consciousness of his own supreme importance — and let us not forget that a work of this kind in Beethoven’s time was still titled “Sonata for Piano and Violin.”
There could in any case have been no such complaints after intermission, when Bell’s and Haywood’s instinctive and seemingly effortless unanimity of phrasing and accentuation yielded the sunniest entertainment of the evening. Their sparkling account of the Divertimento that Stravinsky assembled out of his ballet “The Fairy’s Kiss” was an object lesson in throwing off the most stunning effects with apparent insouciance, and richly merited the standing ovation it called forth.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org