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In And Out Of Style

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/08/2004 -  
Franz Schubert: Sonata D 408
Edvard Grieg: Sonata # 3
Maurice Ravel: Sonata
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Serenade melancolique
Pablo De Sarasate: Introduction and Tarantella

Joshua Bell (violin)
Simon Mulligan (piano)

Joshua Bell is the most centered Romantic musician performing today, and therein hangs a tale. First the quibbles. Mr. Bell opened his superb recital last evening at Carnegie Hall with a Schubert sonata generally considered rather a lightweight piece of pretty material but hardly one of the most communicative in the over 1000 works of this remarkable composer. However, those of us who ranked the music in the second tier had never heard it played by Joshua Bell. In his hands, this sonata became a profound essay with many important phrases and transitions, the equal of any narrative chamber work in the repertoire. Certainly the audience was the beneficiary of Mr. Bell’s empathetic communication; the trouble was that this was not Schubert. The utterances were too weighty and ornamented to fit into the more Classical approach of the sonata’s conception. But Bell makes it work: as in his Beethoven, his transmogrification of stylistic elements produces some sort of hybrid that appeals strongly to modern audiences. One wonders how long it would have taken the composer himself to warm to this approach.

Similarly, in a first rate reading of the Ravel, my only criticism is a stylistic one. Like virtually all of his contemporaries, Bell is surprisingly conservative in his interpretation of the second movement. Where Ravel asks for a jazzy flair (the movement is actually called, in English, “blues”), most modern performers, including the present one, moderate their slides and runs to accommodate a more polite version of the piece (this is supposed to be “classical music” after all), rather than the down and dirty that the composer and his hand-picked soloist George Enesco were seeking. If there is a prototypical player for this type of soulful performance, it is not Enesco, Menuhin or even Heifetz, but rather Django Rhinehart. But again, Joshua Bell played with such elasticity as to make his approach equally enjoyable.

For sheer Romanticism, however, this man has no equal. The performance of the Grieg sonata was incredible. Only the Franck surpasses this piece in this reviewer’s heart and mind, and so I have heard as many recordings as possible of what is still a relatively obscure part of the repertoire in the American concert hall. Let me tell you, gentle reader, none of them even comes close to this electrifying account (although, gun to head, the Tosha Seidel is quite thrilling as well). Bell seems to have an innate ability (more likely the result of tremendously detailed hard work) to bring out every ounce of passion in these highly emotional poems of the second half of the 19th century, a time traveler redux without any 21st century shame or constraints. Mr. Bell dives into the music seemingly recklessly, devil take the hindmost, but never founders or ravels during the storm-tossed voyage. Matched stroke for stroke by his pianist Simon Mulligan, whose opening of the second movement was poignant to the point of tears (think of those great Lyric Pieces of the same Norwegian composer), this necromancer of the violin took literally the alla romanza suggestion in the score. This was music making of the highest possible order; the best individual performance of any work that I have heard this season, Bell leaving his all out there on the almost bare stage. All of this passion was offered to one of the least attentive crowds of the year, coughs, paper rattlings and cell phones their odious riposte (I write many of them and therefore I suppose that I should be gratified, but I swear that the man seated next to me read his program notes all evening long), although, of course, they were all hearty and showy applauders. Pearls before swine perhaps, but flawless pearls nonetheless.

Continuing in the Romantic tradition, the pair paid tribute to the late Robert Harth with a supercharged version of the Tchaikovsky. Here is another area where Bell is a true master: he tantalizingly journeys to the very edge of the abyss wherein lie the twin demons schmaltz and kitsch, leans over like a tightrope walker, but never falls in. Silently (and therefore in the minority in this particular mob), this reviewer gasped at his derring-do. The well-chosen encore was another that could conceivably come under fire for violations of style, except that those transgressions were committed almost 100 years ago by the likes of Arturo Toscanini. This duo’s reading of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo was suitably Romantic and gorgeous in its lyrical line, since the excerpted air has taken on a new life in the post-Mahler era.

One more note about style. Both men appeared in their extremely dark, downtown, Soho, ultra-hip uniforms. Even the page-turner was dressed in black.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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