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For Whom Bell Toils

New Jersey
Prudential Hall
02/02/2002 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 4
Cesar Franck: Sonata
Igor Stravinsky: Divertimento
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Meditation
Pablo de Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy

Joshua Bell (violin)
Simon Mulligan (piano)

Christoph von Dohnanyi, in the midst of his final tour with the Cleveland Orchestra, recently brought three nights of Beethoven to Carnegie Hall. When asked for his take on the project, the Maestro replied that he no longer cared about what type of sound the composer wanted, but was instead only interested in making Beethoven real for the 21st century. I pondered this wish as I listened to Joshua Bell engagingly perform the Sonata # 4 with a total disregard for Classical style and taste. The bowings and romantic gestures were all wrong, and yet this reading appeared to be simply an alternative form of direct communication to a crowd of New Jersey patrons perhaps less familiar with the etiquette of period performance practice. In this relaxed atmosphere, where applause was plentiful and occurred at the oddest of times and where the only person in concert dress was the page-turner, the historical inaccuracies (and some of the technical) were subsumed by the genuine musicality of the moment. Beethoven might have objected, but this audience clearly did not.

Mr. Bell is one of the more emotive fiddlers in the game today and, even though his faithfulness to the score is a bit cavalier, he is especially adept at communicating the essence of a piece. Those grand gestures which were so out of time in the first number were more than appropriate for the delicate poetry of passion that is the Franck. With a confidant armamentarium including a very strong vibrato, Bell tore into, chewed up and spit out a fiery and intense performance, far superior to some of the more “correct” but also more gingerly renditions in the modern CD repertoire. I was enthralled with this man’s playing even while acknowledging its flaws.

The second half of the program was more frivolous, the notable exception being a tremendously inspiring and deeply felt incarnation of the Tchaikovsky, impressive for its delicious harmonics, soft touch and exquisite sense of phrase. For the rest, this was a typical set of encore style pieces, the actual encore the obligatory paean to that most beloved of all violinistic grandpas, Fritz Kreisler. Joshua Bell may not be the best at his instrument, but he sure knows how to work a room.

There are still acoustical anomalies to be investigated at this new concert hall. Friends who attended this same recital but sat in another part of the parquet complained of an imbalance between piano and violin, something not at all present around my plush critic’s seat. Next week I shall sit up in the top balcony for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, if only to hear how the other half lives.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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