A Dazzling Recital by Joshua Bell

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert, R. Strauss, Prokofiev:  Joshua Bell (violin), Sam Haywood (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 11.12.2012 (RB)

Schubert:  Rondo in B minor D895
Strauss:  Violin Sonata in E Flat, Op 18
Prokofiev:  Violin Sonata in D, Op 94bis

Joshua Bell increasingly splits his time between playing the violin and conducting: earlier this year he brought out his first CD of Beethoven symphonies as conductor of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.  For this recital he was joined by the redoubtable Sam Haywood, his regular duo partner.

The concert opened with Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, which the composer wrote for the young Bohemian violinist, Josef Slavik, who was described by Chopin as a second Paganini.  The work is rather unusual for Schubert in that it contains a lot of brilliant virtuoso writing although it is also suffused with some wonderful Schubertian melodies and enchanting musical ideas.  The opening section, marked andante, was played with dramatic flair; both players immediately engaged the audience’s attention.  There was excellent rapport and interplay between the two players in the ensuing Allegro with Bell dispatching the pyrotechnics with vigour and panache and clearly enjoying himself in an animated way on stage.  Bell was particularly impressive in the way in which he allowed the vocal lines to sing out in a sweet and unaffected way while at the same time maintaining the momentum in this zesty Hungarian dance.   Occasionally, the intonation and passagework were not as clean as they might have been but these very minor blemishes did not detract from a full-blooded and committed performance from both players.

Richard Strauss wrote a wide selection of chamber music work in the very early part of his career before he turned to opera and orchestral writing – the wonderful sextet from Capriccio is the only chamber music Strauss wrote after the age of 25.  The Violin Sonata in E flat is the last of these early chamber music works and it contains many intriguing and innovative elements which foreshadow the later mature Strauss.  The music allowed Bell to unveil the full expressive range of his Huberman Stradivarius.  He coaxed the most gorgeous, lush and rich sound from the instrument in the opening Allegro ma non troppo, capturing perfectly the heroic, romantic ardour of the music. There was some dreamy romantic playing from Haywood and excellent control of texture and tone colour.  The slow movement, andante cantabile, is sometimes played separately from the rest of the work as an improvisation.  Bell played the opening melody in a highly sensitive and expressive way, seemingly alive to every inflection and nuance of the music.  Both players played the middle section with a passionate emotional engagement and there was some delightfully controlled filigree from Haywood at the end.  Both players were alive to the full range of textures and sonorities in the finale, and the technical execution was extremely fine, although I was not entirely convinced by the overarching musical narrative.

The programme notes for the concert said that additional works would be announced from the stage and the first of these – Heifetz’s transcriptions of three Gershwin preludes – was performed immediately after the interval.  The first prelude was played with rhythmic vibrancy and seemed to depict the bustle of city life in downtown Manhattan.  The second was a smoky blues number in which both players were alive to the jazz-influenced harmonies and rhythms.  Bell dispatched the third prelude with gusto, handling the double stopping, pizzicati and cross rhythms with ease.

The concert ended with Prokofiev’s wonderful Second Violin Sonata in D major, which David Oistrakh commissioned from the composer in December 1943 after hearing the precursor Flute Sonata in D major.  In the opening moderato Bell and Haywood did an excellent job in contrasting the lyrical thematic material with the more trenchant and spiky elements.  Bell’s phrasing was very good indeed and he was highly responsive to Prokofiev’s full rag-bag of tricks and surprizes.  The scherzo was played with energy and vibrancy but at the same time the nervy and grotesque elements of the music were brilliantly realised.  The andante slow movement had a nice improvisatory feel and was played with a spontaneity and freshness by both players.  The last movement – with its theme which is so reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf – is one of my favourite works for violin and piano.  Bell played it with energy and verve relishing the technical challenges and playing the entire movement in a really upbeat way in a superb ending to the concert.

There were two encores:  a transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor and a show piece work by Sarasate.  Bell’s playing of the latter was one of the most breathtakingly brilliant technical displays I have ever heard in a live concert.  He is clearly not ready to hang up his bow for conducting just yet and long may it last!

Robert Beattie