Friday, 27 March 2009

Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk, Wigmore Hall, 26 March 2009

Wigmore Hall

Janáček – Sonata for violin and piano
Brahms – Sonata for violin and piano no.3 in D minor, op.108
Ysaÿe – Sonata for solo violin in A minor, op.27 no.2, ‘Obsession’
Franck – Sonata for violin and piano in A major

Joshua Bell (violin)
Jeremy Denk (piano)

Ultimately this proved a frustrating recital. It boasted many good thing, yet not only did they fail to come together as a convincing whole, but one also became aware of a number of artistic limitations, particularly with respect to Joshua Bell’s performance.

Janáček’s violin sonata is, at the best of times, not an easy work to render coherent. Here, Bell often seemed to act more as a soloist than as a chamber musician, which, given his experience in the world of chamber music, came as something of a surprise. He looked at his partner, Jeremy Denk, far more when the violin was silent than when called upon to play, whereas Denk proved extremely attentive. There could be no faulting the technique of either musician but Bell was rather too ready, especially during the opening movement, to employ a seemingly all-purpose Romantic tone. Denk sounded more alert to the idiosyncrasies of the composer’s style. He provided a nicely rippling opening to the following Ballada. Though still somewhat on the Romantic side, Bell now seemed more sensitive to shifts of mood – and Romanticism is probably more appropriate to this movement in any case. Shades of Debussyan harmony were brought out, and with a good dose of passion rather than haze. The third movement was strongly characterised by fragments of distorted dance rhythms, reminiscent of the troika music in Katya Kabanova and looking forward also to the Sinfonietta. Bell’s double-stopping was flawless, although the music did not always seem to have penetrated under his skin. The fourth movement had a real sense of chamber music, the musical ‘lead’ passed between the instruments according to the imperatives of work and performance. I very much liked the musical question marks posed by the uncertain violin interventions, not least that with which the sonata ended. Denk provided arresting piano tremolos, igniting a passionate response from both musicians in an unsuccessful – which is as it should be – attempt to climax.

The third of Brahms’s violin sonatas opened once again with an uncertainty of idiom. Denk’s role here was once again more impressive, presenting clear textures without loss to the piano part’s complex richness. By contrast, Bell’s tone often sounded inappropriately light. At home with the lyrical side of Brahms’s inspiration – Bell can certainly spin a long line – the reading often lacked depth, although the half-light of the first movement’s coda provided subtly menacing shadows. The following Adagio was presented as a song without words: not without a proto-Elgarian nobility but rarely penetrating to the intricacies of Brahms’s serial foreshadowings. The third movement fared better. Its ghostliness was possessed of an unusual serenity, albeit punctuated by truly Romantic outbursts. There was an almost Schumannesque schizophrenia, within certain bounds, rendering the scherzo more of a Romantic ‘character piece’, or perhaps dual character piece, than is usually the case. In the finale, Denk proved adept at reminding us of the echoes of the previous movement. Yet, here the welcome clarity he brought to his part was married to an undue lightness of tone. He sounded a little too Mendelssohnian. Bell’s rendition of the violin part was technically flawless but I wanted a greater rawness, if not of tone, then at least of emotion.

Where Bell really did come into his own was in the solo Ysaÿe sonata. The opening Prélude brought forth immediate echoes of Bach, leading into a duly obsessive hearing of the Dies irae chant. The fascinating second movement, Malinconia, seemed somehow – and without taking the obvious route of eschewing vibrato – to evoke the mid-Baroque world of melancholy Affekt. There was nothing showy to Bell’s performance; indeed, it proved unfailingly musical. The Dies irae here sounded as if refracted through the evocation of a consort of viols. After the sweet pizzicato opening of the following Danse des ombres, there was again something intriguingly alte about the ensuing Musik, a splendid antidote to the glossiness of so many performances of such repertoire. The music then grew into something more Romantic, as if the listener were being taken on a guided tour of the history of the violin, with an appropriate nod to Paganini at the appropriate juncture. This led seamlessly into the final movement, Les Furies, in which Bell could prove himself the very model of a modern violin virtuoso, whilst hinting at a modernism, especially of harmony and its implications, often overlooked in the music of Ysaÿe.

Franck’s sonata proved, like much of what had gone before, something of a curate’s egg. Denk imparted a surprisingly impressionistic tinge to his opening bars, the harmonies sounding stranger than usual. However, the first movement as a whole lacked the necessary security of harmonic direction, veering between those intriguing, if ultimately not quite convincing, hints of Debussy and a somewhat over-the-top Romanticism. One might well say that Franck’s elusive idiom lies somewhere in between the two; perhaps so, but it does not really lie in alternation between them. Bell’s violin often sounded disconnected from the piano part, not in the sense of a lack of synchronisation but rather as if he were playing to a pre-recorded ‘accompaniment’. The second movement opened with a wonderfully Tristan-esque bent to the melodic lines, to some extent prefigured before but now given fuller – and convincing – rein. Romanticism was spot on in this case, although the central section sounded, ironically, more like Brahms in D minor than much of Brahms in D minor had. I liked the improvisatory feeling to the beginning of the Recitative-Fantasia, evocative of the organist ‘preluding’ upon previous given themes. However, even at his most ardent, Bell’s lyricism was not really matched by sufficient depth of tone. If the musicians were not entirely able to mask the repetitive nature of Franck’s cyclical form here and in the finale, the fault is not really theirs. One again had a sense in the final movement of a soloist and accompanist rather than true chamber music. This was not entirely Bell’s fault, for there were times when Denk could have been rather less delicately reticent. As so often in this recital, the whole was not a great deal more than the sum of its variable parts.