By R.M. Campbell
Joshua Bell discovered some years ago that being a very good violinist was not sufficient to earn fame. So, he turned his attractive personality and boyish looks into a populist appeal. He appeared on television in all sorts of roles, did soundtracks, to name a few. The music world had already noticed his playing, now a wider audience discovered him. One might think he had cheapened himself somewhat in the process, but he didn’t. He continued to play with an immaculate tone, clean technique and appreciation for the music at hand, regardless of its origins.
Thus, it is little wonder that his recital Monday night at Benaroya Hall, on the Seattle Symphony’s Distinguished Artist Series, was near capacity. He didn’t play show tunes or anything remotely smacking of dumbing down to an unwashed audience. The program was all sonatas: Bach, Saint-Saens, Schumann and Ravel. It provided a welcome insight to the young man’s talent which has remained constant. His fingers are still nimble — very nimble in some cases — and articulate, his sense of proportion enviable and tone quality silvery and focused.
The Bach C Minor Sonata, which opened the concert, was played with skill and sensitivity. He made not much effort to give the work anything resembling period style, but it had the right scale and spirit. It was a thorough pleasure to hear. The Saint-Saens’ D Minor Sonata was high romance and a long vigorous line. The reading had plenty of facility but there was also understanding below the surface. The final movement, Allegro Molto, is really a perpetual motion of incredible speed, seemingly performed in one phrase. It took the audience’s collective breath away, particularly as Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk traded lighting passage work. Needless to say, the performance received a standing ovation.
The second half was devoted to Schumann’s A Minor Sonata and Ravel’s Sonata, composed in 1927. In the former, Bell was particularly expressive allowing the flowing lines of the composer’s ideas their full flowering. He played with boldness and intelligence, even wit. The sonata also ends with a perpetual motion in which Bell and Denk appeared as if they were dueling. The Ravel sonata is a quirky, anxious piece typical of Ravel in that period of his life. Bell and Denk settled into the piece quickly, at ease with its variations of mood. This sonata also concludes with a perpetual motion although the violinist has the bulk of the work in front of him.
Denk was a superb partner. A soloist in his own right, and a frequent participant at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Denk has the means to be an equal of Bell. And he was, only occasionally asserting himself too much.
The only disturbing thing about the recital was, of all things, the attire. Bell wore a burgundy-colored shirt trimmed in black that hung outside his black pants. Very convenient. One doesn’t have to change clothes from a casual lunch to the concert platform. Denk was a little more formal, with his black shirt, but also hanging loose beyond the waist. The reasons — to make concerts more comfortable for the audience — are obvious but they demean the concert experience.