Polished and poetic, Joshua Bell’s artistry remains remarkable

January 30, 2012
By Michael Cameron

Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood performed Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s Symphony Center, violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood presented gleaming, polished, and thoroughly engaging readings of four standard sonatas and a trio of Gershwin preludes. There was nothing unexpected either in repertoire or execution, a state of affairs perfectly suited to him and his considerable fan base.

Bell has a tendency to excessively micromanage in concertos, but the duo sonata format seems to constrain this predilection, requiring particular attention to structure and balance. His instincts and intellect serve him well in this conversational idiom, particularly with a partner as sensitive and capable as Haywood. The only mismatch onstage was Haywood’s use of an iPad (with bluetooth-enabled page turning) versus Bell’s analog printed scores. How long before human page-turners seem downright quaint?

Mendelssohn’s sonatas, oddly neglected until a half century ago, have long been favorites of Bell. In his hands the F major sonata was lyrical, lithe, and confidently idiomatic. Haywood seemed right at home, making easy work of the composer’s formidable passagework with crisp transparency and an unflagging sense of line.

Bell’s sound might not seem suitably weighty for Brahms’ darkly-hued Sonata No. 3, but the pair brought a tight rhetorical focus to Brahms’ late masterwork. The third movement gained measurably from an unusually brisk tempo, and the pianist’s formidable technique never showing signs of strain here or in the majestic finale.

I’ve heard edgier versions of Ysaÿe’s unaccompanied Sonata No. 3 (Ballade), but none that could match the vivid color palette and sheer poetry of Bell’s reading. He managed to convey the oddly obsessive quality of the score without sacrificing the unwavering beauty of his sound. Jascha Heifetz’s beloved arrangements of three Gershwin piano preludes revealed an intensely personal vision, but Bell avoided the overwrought caricatures that sometimes mar the second of the set, Blue Lullaby.

Blues idioms were furthered explored in the Ravel Sonata, a work featured on Bell’s new disc French Impressions and one perfectly suited to the duo’s strengths. The violinist’s subtly colored hues in the opening movement were neatly echoed by Haywood, while the breathless scampering in the final Perpetuum Mobile was a bracing adrenalin rush. Needless to say, both played with the same measure of astonishing accuracy and polished finesse evident in every other work. Bell played a lone but lengthy encore, a zesty and vibrant reading of Sarasate’s chestnut, Zigeunerweisen.

Artistic curiosity seems to develop early in a career, so it may be too late to hope for a spark to explore beyond the familiar scores he learned in his teens. In the meantime, Bell looks, sounds, and moves like the remarkable wunderkind of 25 years ago.

Comments are closed.