Joshua Bell and Friends Delight in Czech Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Suk, Janáček, Martinů, Dvořák. Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Steven Isserlis (cello), Jeremy Denk (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 20.5.2015.( LB)

Suk: Piano Quartet in A minor Op.1 (1891)
Janáček: Violin Sonata (1914 – 1921)
Martinů: Cello Sonata No.2 (1941)
Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E-flat Op.87 (1889)


Celebrity concerts evidently still fire the public imagination, and a packed Wigmore Hall came to hear violinist Joshua Bell and his friends, the cellist Steven Isserlis, violist Lawrence Power and the pianist Jeremy Denk, perform a programme of Czech chamber music this evening.

Their concert was devoted to two piano quartets, one a mature work by Dvořák, and the other an inspired first opus by his student, Josef Suk, complemented by a pair of sonatas by Janáček and Martinů, with one each for violin and cello respectively, but nothing for viola.

For the piano quartets cellist Steven Isserlis was seated in the middle of the ensemble, where the viola would traditionally be, and, the Wigmore Hall’s legendary acoustic for chamber music notwithstanding, violist Lawrence Power was distinctly disadvantaged by this arrangement, especially in view of the complex role the viola plays in a piano quartet, in essence fulfilling the function of both second violin and viola.

Suk’s Piano Quartet, that opened their programme, is an ebullient, muscular and passionate work that makes fierce technical and emotional demands of the players, and the ensemble launched into the piece with gusto, seemingly unperturbed by the clutch of surrounding microphones; the concert was being recorded for possible release on the Wigmore Hall’s own recording label, ‘Wigmore Hall Live’.

The outer movements were infused with an enthusiasm that bordered on bravado, which at times threatened to compromise the finesse usually possessed and exercised by the artists as individuals. The slow movement returned us to something much more thoughtful and tender, and Jeremy Denk’s piano playing was an especial delight throughout, judged to perfection, and never in danger of overpowering his fellow musicians.

Joshua Bell experiences and expresses his music in an intensely physical manner and his performance of Janáček’s violin sonata proved to be no exception. He worked hard at capturing something of the anguished essence of the sonata and Jeremy Denk proved to be an inspirational partner at the keyboard.

Bohuslav Martinů really was a prolific and virtuosic composer, and it is a pity that he has fallen out of favour somewhat. It was refreshing therefore to be treated to a performance of his Second Cello Sonata, a tour de force for both cellist and pianist.

Steven Isserlis’s cello sounded surprisingly muted after the bright sound of Joshua Bell’s Stradivarius in the Janáček, but once the necessary aural adjustments had been made, Martinů’s music dominated. The duo’s performance of the outer movements was robust, almost unremittingly intense, but at the same time immensely satisfying, whilst the Largo second movement was presented especially intimately, with a quite magical ending.

After the interval Lawrence Power joined the ensemble once more, for a performance of Dvořák’s Second Piano Quartet. It is an extravagantly melodious and rhythmically buoyant work which plays unashamedly to the gallery, and so too did the performers this evening. It came as no surprise therefore that their exuberance and commitment should elicit such an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis were at their very best in their sonata performances, Lawrence Power delivered a stylish harmonic and textural contribution, and seized with relish his occasional moments in the limelight, but it was Jeremy Denk who truly excelled, throughout. His highly nuanced, richly expressive and idiomatic piano playing proved to be the highlight of the evening for me, and I have no doubt that his musical partners must value his exquisite musicianship at least as much.

The ensemble will be joined by the violinist Pamela Frank for a second concert of Czech chamber music at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday evening, 23rd May 2015 at 7:30pm

Leon Bosch

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