Joshua Bell Offers Thought-Provoking Victuals Alongside Virtuosic Fare at the Barbican Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Prokofiev, Grieg: Joshua Bell (violin), Sam Haywood (piano), Barbican Hall, 27.2.2019. (CS)

Joshua Bell (c) Bill Phelps
Joshua Bell (c) Bill Phelps

Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.4 in A minor Op.23
Prokofiev – Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major Op.94a
Grieg – Violin Sonata No.2 in G major Op.13

Almost thirty years ago, the late Edward Said published an article in The Nation entitled ‘Extreme Occasions: on Celibidache’ (26 June 1989).  Said’s critical discussion of a performance given at Carnegie Hall on 22 April that year by the Munich Philharmonic and the then 76-year-old Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache opened with a statement which echoed the prophecies made by Theodor Adorno fifty years previously in relation to popular music, the hallmark of which Adorno identified, and denigrated, as ‘standardisation’.

Said wrote, ‘The two-hour classical concert performance has solidified into an unchangeable commodity, bought and sold by managers, performers and audiences alike’.  Said judged that the ‘higher the level of the performer’s excellence, the greater his or her dissatisfaction with the occasion’, an ‘occasion’ he described as a ‘mass public spectacle … governed by a fairly rigid set of rules and rituals’.  In contrast, ‘The least interesting work is almost always provided by musicians who passively accept the unnatural confines of the two-hour performance, and operate within them uncomplainingly’.  Speaking of Celibidache’s interpretation of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, Said remarked that it was ‘certainly unlike most other musical performances I have heard’, and suggested that the performance was an inclusive and highly ‘self-dramatizing phenomenon, not just a two-hour period that frames a ritual of virtuosity’.

Now, no-one could judge that Joshua Bell’s violin-playing and musicianship attains anything other than the very highest ‘level of excellence’; nor that Bell has not, throughout his career, sought to actively break through musical conventions and clichés.  After all, Bell was ‘The Man with the Violin’ who, in 2007 busked on the Washington Metro for an hour, earning just a few dollars, an ‘experiment’ which led to a newly commissioned animated film and, ten years later, a multi-media event at the Kennedy Center.  Alongside his interest in film music – he was the soloist on the Academy Award-winning sound-track for the 1998 film, The Red Violin ­­– Bell has collaborated with diverse artists, such as Wynston Marsalis and Sting; keen to explore the way music technology can expand the boundaries of his instrument, he has collaborated with Embertone on the ‘Joshua Bell Virtual Violin’, a sampler created for producers, engineers and composers.  He has premiered new works by John Corigliano, Jay Greenberg and Behzad Ranjibaran among others, and commissioned a new violin concerto from Nicholas Maw.  His directorship of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, since 2011, has resulted in some wonderfully vibrant and memorable music-making (Cadogan Hall, January 2017), as have his appearances at the Proms with the ASMF and as a soloist.

That said, Said’s words came to mind after this recital last week by Bell and pianist Sam Haywood at the Barbican Hall.  There was technical excellence, powerful drama and musical insight; some interpretative decisions prompted new reflections and Bell’s appreciation and communication of Grieg’s expressive voice in the second of the composer’s violin sonatas revealed the essence and profundity of this work in ways which have previously escaped me.  But, still, I found the ‘whole’ strangely unsatisfying.  Perhaps that was partly the ‘fault’ of the venue?  The Barbican Hall is not the ideal venue for instrumental recitals – and an oval of light was deployed to suggest a more intimate setting – though Bell has such a strong musical presence and character that that was hardly necessary.

A glance at my reflections about the duo’s last performance at the Barbican Hall in March 2017 offered a few clues, for though on that occasion I clearly found that the diverse repertoire opened up interesting questions and relationships, there was a similar tendency as exhibited here to progress towards audience-pleasing baubles which might disturb the ‘balance’ of the recital, and diminish the impact in the listener’s memory of the earlier works in the programme.

Prior to the concert, on paper the programme looked ‘substantial’ – three ‘heavy-weight’ sonatas – and also thought-provoking.  What relationships might be intimated between these three works, at least two of which are not recital ‘staples’ or necessarily familiar to the audience?  I pondered the likely order (Prokofiev, before or after the Grieg?), and also where the interval might be placed, for in terms of ‘length’ there looked to be barely an hour of music.  And, so it proved.

Bell and Haywood began with Beethoven’s A minor sonata Op.23, Bell establishing his musical presence with characteristic flair and focus.  The Presto was almost feverish in its restless intensity, the development section particularly tempestuous.  Haywood had occasionally seemed not entirely comfortable during this fiery opening movement, but his voicing of the opening of the Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto produced some nice contrasts.  Bell’s decorative trills introduced a playful note, one that contrasted pleasingly with the stature of the movement’s counterpoint.  With barely a pause, the Allegro molto commenced with classical grace and a sense of expanse.  Haywood’s quaver passage-work was agile and light, while Bell’s shaping of the long lines was characteristically eloquent and sweet-toned.  After the vigour and breadth of the movement, the fading whispers of the close came as something of a surprise.

The Moderato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.2 was brisk but the violin’s melody and ornamental diversions were silky and the varied thematic material unfolded naturally and organically.  I particularly liked the way the players shaped the conflicts of the development section so that the recapitulation – played by Bell with a beautiful sheen and strength of sound – seemed like an inevitable resolution of those conflicts.  The Scherzo: Presto was breakneck, bordering on a whirling wildness, and, in the piano part at least, it’s fleet staccatissimos were not always ‘tidy’.  I’d have liked a firmer ‘stamp’ from Haywood, too, in the piano’s crescendoing pounding descent into the second theme, to launch the latter with more flamboyance.  Bell was fittingly mercurial though, when his fantasia-like excursions interrupted the serenity of the quiet, contrasting theme – the music seemed almost Debussy-an here.  I wish violinists would give the Andante the space it needs to breathe and bathe in Prokofiev’s harmonic tinges and layers – perhaps it’s me who hears this movement idiosyncratically! – but Bell’s tone was sheer loveliness, and Haywood’s voicing and bass line again produced eloquent results.  Similarly, the central section of the Allegro con brio might have deepened in expressivity if it had been afforded a little more time and breadth, and I thought that occasionally Haywood was struggling to keep up with Bell, who pushed the movement onwards with forthrightness and conviction.

It was indeed to be post-interval that we heard Grieg’s Second Violin Sonata in G.  I wasn’t convinced that Haywood conveyed the sonata’s underpinning spirit of ‘song’ – that is, Norwegian folk song – in the opening phrases of the Lento doloroso, but Bell’s declamatory rhetoric was compelling, and the ensuing Allegro vivace certainly did dance, with delicacy and nuance.  The second of Grieg’s three themes was mellifluously played by Bell, punctuated by shivering ripples from Haywood, and as the material developed, as in the first movement of Prokofiev’s sonata there was a very strong sense of many parts cohering to form a convincing whole.  I was quite surprised by Bell’s bowing in the Andante tranquillo where the cantabile theme, slurred in bars by Grieg, was often broken into quite marked separate bows creating a quite different mood, but the movement did acquire a lovely ‘fey’ quality and the clarity of the textual counterpoint was admirable.  The Allegro animato was spirited and flexible, and here, as throughout this sonata, Bell’s gloriously full sound viscerally conveyed the music’s passion, drama and confidence.

With Said’s words in mind, and with the hands of the clock spelling 9pm, there would clearly be more to come (though not quite enough to reach the ‘two-hour target’), and we duly had three encores: Clara Schumann’s first ‘Romance’ of the Op.22 set, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 as transcribed by Joachim, and Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantella which the duo also played at the close of their 2017 Barbican recital.  The audience lapped it up: the warm but somewhat ‘polite’ reception of the three sonatas was replaced by bellowed ‘bravos’, feet-stamping and a general air of over-excitement.  Bell had clearly given the punters what they wanted, but such crowd-pleasers, and the accompanying hullabaloo, threatened to overwhelm my response to the Grieg – feelings and thoughts I would have liked time to savour.  What would have happened if Bell and Haywood had simply ended their recital there.  As Virginia Woolf shows at the end of Between the Acts, audiences don’t like to have their expectations challenged, overturned or denied.  But, I’d have liked to see Bell leave us to reflect on what we’d heard, rather than offer us virtuosity – admittedly effortless and smile-inducing – by which the former’s ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ might be  overshadowed.

Claire Seymour

2 thoughts on “Joshua Bell Offers Thought-Provoking Victuals Alongside Virtuosic Fare at the Barbican Hall”

  1. Thank you Claire. I was with you every minute of this concert reportage, and share all your thoughts. I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing is ever going to give us the thrill we had when we heard Joshua first in his late teens. No rose like a fresh rose. His magic is still there evidently. Not perhaps so consistently as when he was forming his career. I’m sorry he didn’t give you the Thais intermezzo as his final encore. It used to be a favourite of his. Especially when he wanted to send the audience away remembering the meditative bits.


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