Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 18 November at… er… 7 pm

red-violin.jpgAll did not go quite according to plan:  Joshua Bell (along with several of the audience) apparently thought the concert started at 7.30, not 7, so it was getting on for 7.20 when a slightly dishevelled-looking figure finally came on to the Cadogan Hall stage, along with the more impeccably turned out pianist Jeremy Denk, both dressed all in black and looking somewhat like a couple of über-cool twelve-year-olds.

Things were further muddied by a misunderstanding which had led all of us (including me, writing the programme notes, and poor Lisa at the Hall who booked him a year ago) to think he would be performing the Sonata by John Corigliano (1964), whereas Mr Bell insisted he was playing Grieg’s Sonata No. 3 instead.  His rather garbled explanation did little to clear things up.

Anyway, all negative impressions were erased when they started to play.  The Schumann Sonata No. 1 was terrific (a little early scratchiness aside), charged with energy and understanding, the beautiful conversational middle movement full of intimacy and wit. 

(Amazing that in 1945 Harold Bauer thought it necessary to ‘improve’ Schumann’s violin sonatas, correcting perceived errors in balance, texture and dynamics and even ‘touching up’ the harmony.  Even more amazing that, as recently as 1972, John Gardner commends these versions to performers ‘for serious consideration’  [in ‘Robert Schumann, the Man and His Music’, ed. Alan Walker, Barrie & Jenkins 1972]. 

Poor Schumann… of course, he wasn’t well, was he… so he needs a helping hand… can’t orchestrate, poor dear… has good ideas but doesn’t know how to get them across… 

Terrifying arrogance!  Just play what the man wrote, and let it tell you how it’s supposed to go!  Trust him, he’s a greater musician than you will ever be!  End of rant.)

Then came Beethoven’s last Sonata, No. 10 in G, also delivered with grace, style, humour, charm and power.  Bell’s ‘1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius’ makes a glorious sound in his hands, deep and rich and even.

The Grieg sonata in the second half, replacing the Corigliano (which he has just recorded, as he didn’t miss the opportunity to tell us), was another tremendous performance.  What an amazing and underrated composer Grieg is!  Not much evidence of celebrations in this, the centenary year of his death.  The Sonata No. 3 suffers slightly from the fault that bedevils his Piano Concerto – a tendency to go way over the top, into overdrive.  But Joshua Bell’s performance was enormously convincing.

His Tchaikovsky encore was… sweet, no more.

Throughout, Jeremy Denk (of whom I hadn’t heard, I’m ashamed to say) was an accomplished and minutely attentive partner — looking up at Joshua Bell for every tiny nuance and point of contact.  In fact the Grieg gave both of them an opportunity to wear their hearts on their sleeves and bash out the music with huge aplomb, to a greater extent than in the first half.  The Steinway seemed to be enjoying it, anyway.

Mr Denk’s biography in the programme went to great lengths to extol the virtues of his blog.  So here it is: < Think Denk >

Oh, and Joshua Bell’s is .

So… a fine, accomplished evening of great music-making – even if not quite what we were expecting.


picture stolen from Sydney Morning Herald — thanks!

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