Joshua Bell’s recording of two of the most formidable works in the violin concerto repertoire is a welcome addition to the global catalogue. The happy surprise is that the middle movements of both works are the gems, which speaks well for Bell’s growth more as a musician than gifted practitioner.
Given its amenable outlook, where the minor mode is more colour than temperament, placing the Mendelssohn first, like planning a fine meal, makes good sense.
The opening measures are somewhat affected but the fire is soon lit and Bell offers up the score with characteristic technical prowess and one of the richest tones on the planet today. As the movement progresses his melodic treatment is certainly “on the sleeve” but never all over it.
Sony’s engineers have done an excellent job capturing the collaboration with Camerata Salzburg (whose tympanist—so vital to both works—would be the envy of any major orchestra), which is led by Sir Roger Norrington. What a pleasure to “hear” a true pianissimo and the gaily bouncing pizzicati providing the perfect foil to Bell’s near-perfect excursions to the stratosphere and forward-leaning lines.
Sadly, Norrington lets the orchesra—especially the woodwinds—leave too much meat on their accompanying chords and back-beats that are only exacerbated by the reverberant acoustics—all resulting in slightly-off ensemble with the soloist, leaving bits of muck where crispness is preferred.
Bell’s first cadenza is brashly heroic and filled with technical aplomb; it’s musical and actual breaths provide a compellingly personal statement that slips back easily to the master’s famous arpeggiated return.
The marvellous transition to the “Andante” is exquisitely haunting and gentle. Bell digs deep into Mendelssohn’s sublime theme, capturing his feeling with conviction and integrity that is only marred by a tad too much portamento. The coda is exceptional, floating along effortlessly, yet with the musical goal always in sight.
The trills, which bid “adieu,” have a wonderful sense of reluctance to abandon the heavenly landscape in favour of the frenzy of notes that lie just over the horizon.
The finale overflows with panache and sense of fun. Bell’s “catch me if you can” rendering of the cascades of notes keeps everyone on their toes—his unabashed full-bore, into-the-string sound production soars delightfully out of the speakers throughout.
Beethoven’s concerto was dedicated to his very close friend Stephan von Breuning, who was instrumental in the re-writing of the libretto for Fidelio and—reading between the lines in their correspondence—a possible contender as the “Immortal Beloved.” Much in the same spirit, Bell took on the task of not only offering his vision of this masterwork, but writing new cadenzas, giving his unique insight in two ways.
Norrington seemed much more at home, guiding a performance that featured a spectacular dynamic range and, generally, great attention to detail. However, similar to some moments in the Mendelssohn, he too often plays fast and loose with note lengths (robbing the dotted halves; moving forward sooner than indicated) and rhythmic accuracy: the two eighths in the first movement’s theme allowed to be lazy not exactly even, which led to ensemble lapses and an unsettling mood.
For his part, Bell—once again—demonstrated his ability to not only conquer the notes but provide meaning to them. He understands the incredible inner-joy when Beethoven slips into the G Minor passages in the outer movements and is ably assisted there and elsewhere (notably the coda of the “Allegro”) by Camerata’s principal bassoon who matches him note-for-note with style and verve: Fabulous!
The first-movement cadenza seethes with much agitation, but, like the music before it, contains a wide range of levels and feelings, tastefully echoing the preceding motifs and their development.
It falls to the muted “Larghetto” to provide the finest moments of this CD. Here the minds meet, the subtext is revealed and sense of purpose never lost. Bell plunges into the emotional depths and releases an incredibly controlled whimsical delivery of his legato variant overtop the appropriately discreet plucked strings. More than his cadenzas, this section brought a fresh look at music that “everyone knows.”
The “Rondo,” with parts of the incubating “Pastorale” joyously leaking into the fabric, can’t fail to bring a smile to all who enter its domain. Finally, true stacatti are heard—if only from the French horns; perhaps on another occasion, willingness to truncate their glorious sound in favour of the much-needed, drier contrast will be contagious, resulting in a defining performance for this study of greatness. JWR