Passion and poise from Joshua Bell at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Beethoven, Bloch, Ravel: Joshua Bell (violin), Shai Wosner (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.3.2022. (CS)

Schubert – Violin Sonata (Sonatina) in D major D384
Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.7 in C minor Op.30 No.2
BlochBaal Shem
Ravel – Violin Sonata No.2 in G

Over the past few weeks, audiences at Wigmore Hall have been steadily increasing in size as some feeling of ‘normality’, at least as far as concert-going is concerned, is regained.  But, it was a full house for Joshua Bell’s recital with pianist Shai Wosner, in which the American violinist presented a ‘programme of two halves’ – the first focusing on the early years of the nineteenth century, and the shift from a Classical to a Romantic aesthetic, the second highlighting the multifariousness of the Modernist voices heard in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Schubert’s three violin sonatas were composed when he was just 19 years old, and working as an assistant teacher of the youngest pupils at his father’s Vienna school.  Following the Mozartian model, Schubert described them as sonatas for piano and violin; after his death they were published as ‘sonatinas’, perhaps with the amateur music market in mind.  Bell and Wosner certainly didn’t present the D major Sonata as a ‘slight’ work, though.  I hear the three Sonatas – especially the three-movement D major work – as intimate works; one can imagine Schubert playing them at home with his older brother Ferdinand, an accomplished violinist.  Bell sought to convey the dramatic qualities of the opening Allegro molto: his intonation was customarily flawless, the phrasing ever eloquent, and the lucidity of the piano part was refreshing – indeed, the thoughtfulness of Wosner’s approach to detail and rhythm created great interest throughout the recital – but I hear a more carefree spirit in this music.  The tempo of the sunny Andante was well-judged, and its song flowed warmly, with Bell employing an intense vibrato at times.  Vitality surged through the Allegro vivace, but again Bell seemed too insistent; more casual playfulness might have made the music dance with a lighter step.

Beethoven’s C minor Sonata Op.30 No.2 was presented with similar power and urgency, and given the almost symphonic scope of the work, the approach was more persuasive.  In the Allegro con brio the fortissimo double stops were weighty and the spiccato, dotted second subject that they herald quite restless, rather than swaggering.  The motifs were always treated with care, and precisely shaped, and even in the most explosive scalic passages Wosner seemed concerned – and able – to avoid overwhelming the violin.  Perhaps a calmer breadth would have given the Adagio cantabile a little more serenity – the corners sometimes seemed to be turned in somewhat hasty fashion – but Bell’s superb control of bow speed and vibrato made for beguiling melodism.  If the Scherzo didn’t quite conjure the levity of Papa Haydn, then the momentum was strong, and there was plenty of stormy dramatic tension in the Finale: Allegro.

The intensity that sometimes felt rather too forceful in the first half of the recital, lifted the second half to tremendous heights.  The range of colour and texture in the Allegretto of Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G seemed limitless, and the communicative lyricism – the shine of Bell’s tone, the transparency of the accompaniment, the energy (what bristling piano arpeggios) generated by the counterpoint between the two instruments – was transfixing.  If there was fire in the opening movement then there was delicacy and finesse in the Blues that followed.  Bell’s pizzicatos were full and resonant, while Wosner’s off-beats were quirky and wry, and the Gershwin-esque melody was played with a lovely tenderness.  Weight was balanced by whispers and the results were magical.  The Perpetuum mobile was somehow both a reckless whirl and rigorously controlled, winding itself up to ever more impetuous climaxes, but always airy and clean.  Bell was a fiddler possessed, turning to Wosner as his bow flashed glisteningly and flawlessly across his four strings.  There was both showmanship and subtlety: stunning playing.

The highlight for me, though, was Ernest Bloch’s 1923 suite, Baal Shem, subtitled ‘Three Pictures of Hassidic Life’.  It’s a work I love, and one that we don’t get enough opportunities to hear in concert halls, and it was a real treat to hear it played with such passion and freedom.  Bell floated through the fourths and fifths of the sparse theme which opens ‘Vidui’ (Contrition) with a lovely warmth and fluidity, portamento adding to the expressiveness.  A fairly flowing tempo prevented the mood becoming too meditative; there was reflection but not indulgence, and the piano’s triplets created a welcome momentum and easefulness.  The sweetness of Bell’s E-string was matched by the strength and colour of his G-string ascents and the melismatic close had great dignity.  Again, that lyrical bow motion was put to terrific effect in ‘Nigun’, the improvisatory melody of which seemed borne along by its own passion and heart; the double-stops were sonorous and comforting.  ‘Simchas Torah’ shone; this was wonderfully free playing, the phrases given strong definition but also space to breathe.  The technical challenges, including the tricky octave passages, were all mastered with apparent ease.  This was a performance characterised by both opulence and poise.

The almost impossible beauty of a Chopin Nocturne, arranged for violin and piano, was a serene encore to end a very satisfying concert.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “Passion and poise from Joshua Bell at Wigmore Hall”

  1. Thank you Claire. A pleasure to hear that Maestro Bell still has his magic touch for whatever he plays.


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