Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bell epoque

Joshua Bell plays Bach in the Washington subway - to at least one appreciative fan.

Above is a clip of perhaps the most famous violin performance of the past decade: the morning Joshua Bell stood in the Washington D.C. subway (the L'Enfant Plaza stop) and played his Stradivarius for spare change.  As you can see, he was largely ignored (although over three quarters of an hour, he did pick up around $50 in tips; not bad, if you ask me).

Needless to say, context is everything in the arts; Bell received quite a different welcome at his Celebrity Series appearance here last weekend.  Indeed, the crowd that filled Symphony Hall listened in something like rapture as Bell - who looks much as he has for the past, what, two decades - performed a suite of late-nineteenth century duo sonatas (with Sam Haywood, himself a remarkable talent, on piano) that showcased what he does best: the smooth, singing line that is as much his trademark as that famously sun-ripened tenor was Pavarotti's.

The ongoing critical debate over Bell amounts to the question: is there more to him than that glorious bel canto sound?  His fans argue, "Isn't that enough?," and I'm inclined to agree; at any rate, even if Bell's no musical intellectual, he's nevertheless intelligent (not quite the same thing as being intellectual), and he holds his programs to a high standard; he simply chooses serious music that plays to his strengths.  And there's no better place to find such music than in the (mostly) late romantic period - the Bell epoque, if you will. The program last Friday, for instance, was the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in A Major, the Schubert Fantasy in C Major, and the more-obscure Grieg Sonata No. 2 in G Major - all for violin and piano.  This is serious (and certainly self-conscious) stuff, but like much of the late-romantic repertoire, it's loosely structured, and heavier on melody than development; the Brahms in particular is a long collection of songs (and I mean that quite literally - a good part of the piece is drawn from the composer's lieder).

Bell in action.
Bell seemed to take that chamber-music aspect of the Brahms sonata to heart - his playing here was daringly soft, although appropriately warm and meditative.  The opening of the Schubert was likewise intimate (to plushly melancholic accompaniment from Haywood) but as the pulse of the piece quickened, Bell gave it a dancing, almost improvised air.  The Grieg - which I'd never heard before - was the pleasant surprise of the evening - moody, at times tinged with tragedy, and crammed with memorable phrases and melodies (again, drawn from song, this time Norwegian folk song).  Bell seemed at his most committed here, and made a convincing case for the piece as more than just nationalist fantasia (which is how it's usually viewed).

For his encores, the violinist dipped into Sibelius (the poignant "Romance") as well as Henryk Wieniawski (the rousing, if familiar, "Polonaise Brillante"), but made the deepest impression by reaching all the way back to Chopin for the violin transcription of the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor. This is the kind of piece - long, limpid lines of melody set against subdued harmony - that Bell brings off as few can. You left the concert feeling that perhaps you'd learned nothing new about the pieces he had played - but at the same time, yes, Bell's playing was more than enough all by itself.

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