Time and Again
Johannes Brahms: Sonata # 1
Camille Saint-Saens: Sonata # 1
Leos Janacek: Sonata
Bela Bartok (arr. Szigeti): Hungarian Folk Tunes
Henri Wieniawski: Variations on an Original Theme
Joshua Bell (violin)
Jeremy Denk (piano)
The conversation among the kibitzers after the first piece played by Joshua Bell at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday night was of Elman and Heifetz as well as delightful memories of Milstein performing the Mendelssohn concerto with William Steinberg in Pittsburgh. This type of nostalgia is common when Mr. Bell presents a recital as his most welcome old-fashioned style is highly evocative for those of us of a certain age as well as a younger generation of CD collectors. Even though Bell did not play the Brahms ”Rain” Sonata particularly well, at least within the frame of reference of his own high standards, the warmth of his sound engendered poetic rhapsodizing in the crowd.
If Mr. Bell were managed by P.T. Barnum, many of us would accept without question the proposition that he was a traveler from another, gentler time. So genuine is his embracing of vibrato and even portamento that one is somewhat taken aback that he is of such a young age. Bell is not even from Vilnius or Budapest, but rather Indiana of all places.
These roseate reminiscences can blossom after the first offering on the program because the other particularly Joshua Bell phenomenon is that he attracts hordes of younger fans and those would otherwise would never set foot into the concert hall. As a result, there is applause after movements and much milling around between works. One sort of expects people to ignite cigarette lighters at some especially stirring point. What is always apparent, however, is that Bell is in complete control.
For example, in this concert he began an extremely poetic rendition of the Bartok Hungarian Folk Tunes but was soon distracted, as we all were, by the incessant high-pitched buzzing of a hearing aid. Instead of playing through this annoyance – one of the down sides of allowing older fans to come to his concerts as well – he stopped performing and waited. Stating self-deprecatingly that “…I was thinking about starting over anyway…”, this consummate showman received an extended ovation before the piece had ever even begun. Brilliant.
The playing was overall fabulous and legitimately impressive. There is a shape to all of these Joshua Bell recitals, from soft and sensitive to wild and superhumanly dexterous. Along the way was a terrific reading of the Janacek with new partner Jeremy Denk that emphasized the dramatic element. Ending with Wieniawski was not that unusual: Many fiddlers save this type of pyrotechnic for last. But when Bell does it, it is not only thrilling (it sounds as if there are three violinists performing in tandem) but somehow a propos of his ambassadorship from another era.
Always in control, he came out after the performance proper and held up one finger. There was to be only one encore this night, but one that sealed the deal. A transcription by Wieniawski of a Chopin nocturne that left us suitably charmed. And then this kid bounced off of the stage, pumping his fist, a last transfusion of high energy.
New Yorkers have much for which to be thankful, not the least of which is that we will be awash in Mr. Bell next season, with four major performances already announced. One wonders where he goes the rest of the time; perhaps he is concertizing in some arena of the future, reminding everyone of how wonderful things were back in 2005.
Frederick L. Kirshnit