Joshua Bell has always relished the showy repertoire that his virtuosity enables, and with good reason. His romantic ascent from Indiana farm boy to esteemed soloist, and his Midwestern good looks place him squarely at the center of popular classical interest. While Bell extends his crossover appeal by performing on soundtracks like the recent Angels and Demons, he has cemented his artistic status by winning prestigious awards, like the 2007 Avery Fisher Prize. His experiment in busking two years ago in the Washington D.C. metro has also invariably led to more intrigue.
So it was surprising that his Carnegie Hall performance Wednesday, with Jeremy Denk accompanying, opened with Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C Minor. Though Denk is a graceful interpreter, Bell was heavy handed in the Largo and Adagio movements and the pair seemingly struggled to align themselves throughout the vivacious contrapuntal sounds of both Allegro movements. Less surprising was Bell’s stirring choice of wardrobe: a burgundy silk shirt with black (velvet?) collar and cuffs and what appeared to be satin black slacks. (I personally prefer a Steinway’s lacquer to be the shiniest object onstage). Bell’s selection of Saint-Saëns’ Sonata No. 1 in D Minor was more expected, the final movement providing the explosive fireworks and tone we’ve come to expect from him. Here, Bell’s signature mop-top added animated flare to the movement’s most jarring passages as he leaned and jerked about the stage.
The concert’s second half presented the evening’s most exciting possibilities. Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in A Minor was perhaps as lucid and expressive as Bell and Denk sounded all night. But the program inevitably belonged to Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Reflecting the sonic influences of its time (Gershwin, Jazz), the piece shines in its modern sounds but classical tendencies. Written to expose the two instruments’ incompatibility, Bell and Denk’s interplay in the Allegretto was beautifully pastoral. In the “Blues: Moderato”, Bell imbued all the textures Ravel had absorbed from the touring American jazz-bands: glissandos, left-handed plucking with right-handed bowing. The high-octane “Perpetuum Mobile: Allegro” was a flurry of notes, racing to an exciting end. As a bonus, Bell announced an encore to gasps and oohs from the crowd: Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Dvořák’s “Slavonic Fantasy”. It was the technical but flamboyant sendoff the crowd was hoping for.
Photos by Steve J. Sherman