United Kingdom Beethoven, Brahms, Ysaÿe, Rachmaninov and Sarasate: Joshua Bell (violin), Sam Haywood (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 28.3.2017. (CS)
Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.1 in D major Op.12 No. 1
Brahms – Scherzo in C minor (from F-A-E Sonata); Sonata No.3 in D minor Op.108
Ysaÿe – Violin Sonata in D minor Op.27 No.3 ‘Ballade‘
Rachmaninov – Vocalise
Sarasate – Carmen Fantasy Op.25
Joshua Bell’s last appearance at the Barbican in a solo recital took place in 2012 and on Tuesday evening, a large, expectant audience in the hall gave Bell and his accompanist Sam Haywood – Bell’s accustomed partner – a warm welcome back.
The broad, spacious Barbican Hall is not an obvious venue for solo performances, but in the opening work, the first of Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for violin and piano, Bell’s compelling personality and commanding tone immediately established a concentration and focus more commonly associated with more intimate settings.
The Op.12 sonatas are very definitely sonatas for violin and piano, and it took the duo a little while to find an appropriate balance of power between the two instruments. Despite Bell’s vigorous, agile physicality, robust bowing style and dramatic rhetoric in the Allegro con brio, initially at least Haywood seemed to dominate. However, with impressive engagement and communication, the two performers soon settled into a healthy equilibrium; their awareness of each other was unwavering and this imbued their account with real freshness and spontaneity. Variously, they vied for the audience’s attention: Bell’s rhythms were keenly defined, the double-stopping resonant; Haywood’s off-beat accents challenged the metrical balance. Most striking was the clear articulation of the movement’s architecture, and the driving momentum as the tempo surged forward and then yielded.
The theme of the Andante con moto flowed easily, Haywood crafting a graceful melody then slipping unobtrusively to lower realms to make way for Bell’s entry. The piano’s decorative first variation was dexterous, crystalline and light of touch, as Bell offered warm-toned accompanying gestures. Roles were exchanged in the subsequent variant, with Haywood delicately making space for the violin’s melodic elaborations and Bell climbing the E-string of his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius to allow us to enjoy his trademark gleaming sweetness and purity of tone, after which the minor key episode seemed surprisingly turbulent. The concluding Rondo: Allegro was breezily nimble, its cheerfulness occasionally checked by explosive interruptions. Beethoven’s deceptive ‘false endings’ were wryly delivered.
Brahms’ stand-alone Scherzo in C minor – the composer’s contribution to the collaborative F-A-E Sonata – coursed with Romantic fervour and ambition. The tempo pushed forward and Bell employed quite a full bow-stroke for the driving rhythms; Haywood’s triplets were dynamic but the sonorities remained transparent. The major-key trio section sang with warmth, the tempo not markedly slower than the Allegro.
The performers remained on stage following the Scherzo, which effectively served as an appetising prelude to Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata in D minor. The opening of the Allegro was poised and elegant with a sense of restrained passion vivifying the elongated violin phrases. The underlying tension deepened with the oscillating second subject, the piano’s dark pedal tone resonating ominously, and this sense of unrest was released in a fierce development section. Though I know this work well, as a performer and listener, I heard fresh things in the inner voices of the piano part and was intrigued by the sense of mystery that Haywood’s soft-grained bass evoked. Bell’s soulful G-string theme made for a consoling, quasi hymn-like opening to the Adagio and he skilfully built towards the impassioned double-stopped descents which, always rich and clean, emerged into dulcet clarity and peacefulness. The scherzo rippled delicately while the Presto agitato was notable for the way the players did not give too much at the start, respecting the underlying classicism of the movement and allowing form to take precedence over passion.
After the ‘serious’ Romanticism of the first half of the recital, the post-interval works offered a wider palette. The advertised opener, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Air (1995), which was written for Bell, was dispensed with and instead Bell launched straight into Ysaÿe’s Third Sonata for solo violin – the Ballade – which, the violinist explained, had been premiered by Josef Gingold who had been Bell’s teacher at Indiana University, and who had himself studied with Ysaÿe in the late 1920s.
The opening Lento molto sostenuto was relaxed and full-toned but Bell gradually heightened the intensity towards the Allegro in tempo giusto e con bravura. Yet, however exigent the virtuosic demands, Bell never forgot that he was primarily making music, not mastering technical challenges; the sound remained sweet and sonorous, and the Bach-like inevitability of the formal progression was made evident.
The Ballade is often offered as an encore, as is Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, which followed. A fairly swift tempo prevented the yearning lines from sliding into mawkishness, but Haywood’s nuanced, thoughtful rubatos enhanced the expressive range. We remained in encore territory for the final programmed work, Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, which was a veritable drama with Bell and his accompanist adopting a characterful array of guises. Haywood provided an insouciant introduction to the opening movement, and Bell equalled his nonchalance, whipping easily through the glissando, flageolet and pizzicato trickeries. The Habañera was warm but not voluptuously sultry; again the tempo was nippy, as if Bell did not wish to wallow in sensuousness. The pyrotechnics of the Seguidilla and accelerating final movement were artfully despatched.
Two more encores concluded the evening, an arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor and Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle – two miniatures, one poignantly affecting, the other a virtuosic tight-rope walk, which perfectly embodied the range of Bell’s expressive and technical excellence.