Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 Joshua Bell, Violin Sam Haywood, piano Beethoven – Violin Sonata no. 4 in A minor Grieg – Violin Sonata no. 1 in F major Brahms – Violin Sonata no. 1 in G major Bartók – Rhapsody no. 1 for violin and piano
This recital was part of the “Virtuoso Recitals” within the 2015 Great Performers series of Lincoln Center. “Virtuoso” is a word of which I am particularly wary. It is probably one of the most hackneyed terms in music, a catch-all expression that can mean anything, but which basically refers to technical virtuosity, a true “virtue” when it is a means to an end, but a disaster when it is the end itself.
By no means a modern concept, the idea of virtuosity in music has accompanied its historical development and has taken on different forms and meanings following the evolution of musical taste and complexity. Fear not, I’m not about to write a treaty on virtuosity, an endeavor which could probably last a lifetime, and in which I have little interest, except for one aspect – the negative side of virtuosity, or, as I mentioned before, virtuosity as an end.
There is no shortage of examples, in the past and today. I have my pet peeves, but I will refrain from mentioning names, as I have no reason to disparage anyone, just as long as I don’t have to listen to them. So I stay carefully away from certain so-called “stars” whose performances are usually, in my humble opinion, and whatever the instrument, no less than an aggression to music.
This evening, far from staying away, I braved the elements to hear Joshua Bell play a well-chosen sonata program, and I’m so glad that I didn’t let a mere major snowstorm alert deter me.
Let my first comment be to say that as much as I believe Joshua Bell is more than entitled to the spotlight, I don’t see why there should be such a big difference in font size on the Playbill between the violinist’s name and the pianist’s. Both in the music and, in this case, in quality, they are definitely equals. I had never heard Sam Haywood, and he bowled me over. I’m so sorry it took me so long to get acquainted with a pianist of his caliber. I read in the program notes that he regularly plays with Bell and Isserlis, and, in the case of the former, it was obvious. Another bit of information is that he studied with Badura-Skoda and Maria Curcio, the renowned teacher and pupil of Schnabel – need I say more?
Back to our virtuoso. Here is the perfect example of technical accomplishment at the service of music. Never does Bell let virtuosity come to the forefront. It is obviously there, underlying his exceptional delivery of the musical content, enabling him to convey his thoughts and feelings with clarity, articulation and sensitivity. The technical aspect being a given, one may revel solely in the music and he certainly gives us much to delight in.
The four sonatas, although possibly unequal in importance, as Grieg’s, although lovely, cannot compare to Beethoven’s and much less to Brahms’s profoundly lyrical first sonata, were given royal treatment by Bell and Haywood.
Beethoven’s Fourth sonata is not as often performed as the Fifth (“Spring”), Ninth (“Kreutzer”) or Tenth and lacks a slow movement, being in turn gracious and lively. It was an excellent opener, and immediately set the high standard in violin-piano partnership for the evening.
The Grieg sonata coincidently, or maybe chosen intentionally, is also without a true slow movement, and Bell and Haywood gave a beautifully singing version of the Romantic Nordic themes.
After the intermission came the pièce de résistance, in my opinion not only the highlight of the evening’s program but probably one of the highlights of the violin repertoire. The beauty of the opening theme of the first movement is, I believe, equaled only by the first bars of Mendelssohn’s D minor piano trio, played by the cello. Contrary to the two first pieces on the program, Brahms’s sonata not only has a magnificent adagio played with exquisite sensitivity by Bell and Haywood, but both the faster first and third movements, marked Vivace ma non troppo and Allegro molto moderato, are restrained in tempo and almost elegiac in character. Throughout, Bell’s sweet tone and lyricism was perfectly matched by Haywood’s deeply expressive touch.
The Bartók, as charming (and virtuosic!) as it is, seemed a bit anticlimactic to me – I would have inverted the order. As an encore, we were treated to Bell’s arrangement of a Chopin nocturne, which suits him to a tee.
A look at the performances announced for the remainder of this Virtuoso Recitals series shows that Lincoln Center, fortunately, gives the proper significance to virtuosity. I am truly sorry to miss the next recital, on March 30, with Lisa Batiashvili and Paul Lewis in a program of Bach and Schubert. If you happen to be in New York, run, don’t walk, to the box-office!