Joshua Bell serves Tartini and Stravinsky well at Symphony Center

Thu Feb 13, 2014 at 11:38 am

By Elliot Mandel

Joshua Bell performed a recital with pianist Sam Haywood Wednesday night at Symphony Center.
Joshua Bell performed a recital with pianist Sam Haywood Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

Joshua Bell, his 300-year old violin, and pianist Sam Haywood received a warm welcome Wednesday evening at Symphony Center. Playing on the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius – a violin slightly smaller than its modern cousins with beautifully deep orange varnish – Bell launched into a far-reaching program with music written the same year his violin was created.

In 1713, the story goes, Giuseppe Tartini, had a dream in which the devil played a trill so unusual that Tartini was inspired to include it in his Violin Sonata in G minor – now known as The Devil’s Trill. Bell performed the first two movements with ease and clarity while Haywood’s accompaniment emulated the transparency of a harpsichord. In the famous finale, the combination of trills and double stops produced an otherworldly sound befitting the sonata’s subtitle.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96, opens with trills in the violin and piano, bridging the programmatic gap between Tartini and Beethoven. Through the easy-going Allegro, the languid Adagio, and galloping scherzo, Bell’s style was again graceful and clean, though the performance seemed to lack the spark he conjured in the Tartini sonata. Indeed, for all the beauty of the Bell’s violin, the Beethoven sonata might have been better served with the richer and more even tone of a later instrument.

The finale’s theme and variations displayed a myriad of musical colors, though the softer passages seemed more at home within Bell’s violin. At the keyboard, Haywood proved to be a stately partner, embracing the sonata’s spikier piano writing while blending with the violin.

The highlight of the program was found in the concert’s second half with Stravinsky’s rarely heard violin-and-piano arrangement of Divertimento (Suite) from The Fairy’s Kiss. Taken from Stravinsky’s ballet that was itself inspired by Tchaikovsky’s songs, the Divertimento is buoyed by the latter Russian’s strong sense of lyricism. Bell and Haywood played with whimsy, embracing the rustic Swiss dances and fanciful scherzo. The pas de deux was expectedly warm and sweet. Both players turned up the energy in the closing pages that sounded at times like improvised cabaret music.

Bell and Haywood offered two encores to their program: Rachmaninoff’s beloved Vocalise, and Henri Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brillante. Both pieces drew excited gasps of recognition and anticipation from the audience, and were perfect vehicles for Bell’s lyrical style and technical command.

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