Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Review: Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at Wigmore Hall

Bell & Haywood

Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at Wigmore Hall, London
11 December, 2012

Of all the violinists doing the rounds, Joshua Bell seems closest to the model of the mid-twentieth century greats who made their way in America – as comfortable in the serious repertoire as in showpieces and the old-style crossover. His Wigmore Hall programme – given with regular recital partner Sam Haywood – offered the kind of variety that we’re used to from this hugely popular American violinist. It alighted on the territory of some of the last century’s greatest – Heifetz and Oistrakh – and found him standing tall in their company.

Bell began with Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D895 - a vigorous workout of a piece that tripped up the violinist more than once. Largely, though, his rapid finger-work was precise and his tone wonderfully clear. He was on surer ground in Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E flat, Op.18, which revels in the kind of long singing lines that Bell is so good at carrying. It’s one of those finely crafted but rather anonymous early Strauss pieces that offers only glimpses of the instantly recognisable style familiar from the career that followed. Strauss struck his personal sound very suddenly in 1889, the year after composing the Sonata, with Don Juan; had we known him only from the Violin sonata, we’d remember a fiercely Romantic imagination coupled with forgettable melodies. There are some intriguing things, though, in the slow movement, such as the gently turbulent figures that dog the piano part – so delicately captured by Haywood – and the sudden burst of fire that grips the finale in its closing moments.

Bell suspects the influence of Gershwin (or at any rate, jazz) on Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata. I can’t hear it, but he placed Jascha Heifetz’s arrangements of Gershwin’s Three Preludes before the Sonata to make the point. The Preludes, originally for piano, sit a little awkwardly when spread between two instruments, but Bell’s swaggering way with them had an authenticity that I suspect only a New Yorker can muster.

Prokofiev originally composed the Second Violin Sonata for flute, adapting it for violin at the suggestion of David Oistrakh. He then wrote what became known as the First Violin Sonata – a work of such ferocious mechanical anguish that the Second can seem a pale flower beside it. Bell and Haywood, though, made it surging but nostalgic and richly coloured. Bell’s vivid sense of narrative flow carried it in a way I’ve never heard before, enriching it with a fragile turn of phrase that didn't negate power. The audience went wild for what followed – Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and an arrangement for Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne – but it was the Prokofiev that stole the evening.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Bell had something in his trouser pocket, a big no-no to a soloist on stage. And somehow something was missing from the way the pair communicated with each other and with the audience, good playing, but not much heart.

Andrew Morris said...

Bell had his mute in his pocket. Some violinists don't like leaving them on the instrument because they can rattle when not in use.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above comment. I've heard this pair on more than one occasion and they play almost separately from each other. Nothing horribly wrong with it but it certainly lacks soul.