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Timeless Virtuosity

by B.A. Nilsson on January 12, 2012

Joshua Bell, violin; Jeremy Denk, piano
French Impressions

The all-time, go-to, everybody-loves-it sonata for violin and piano was written in 1886 by César Franck. Edison had patented a recording device eight years earlier, and this piece gave musicians something to record on ever since.

Which is not to deny the Franck sonata its good stuff. It’s a compelling piece, throwing the participating instruments into odd whirls of opposition, as in the celebrated opening, then colliding them into whirling dances with themes changed and revisited, dynamics unexpectedly altered, nervous contrapuntal touches—you name it. The fiddle, brooding and busy in the second movement, relaxes into rhapsody in the third. The last movement ambles and then hurtles to a logical finish that abruptly drops the violin from the final few bars—not that this has stopped some violinists from adding their own notes, but Joshua Bell plays the letter of the score and respects the composer’s wishes, which effectively mirror the opening of the piece. What’s especially appealing about the partnership of Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk is that they don’t go outside the piece to find its artistry and drama. What they have to say feels organic, the phrasing and dynamics rising organically from the music.

The CD starts off with the Sonata No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns, a terribly neglected work despite being championed by Heifetz. Bell is a Heifetz adherent, and pays tribute with a performance that’s every bit as ardent, and, unlike the Heifetz recordings, you’re allowed to hear the piano here and can appreciate the intricacy of the writing.

Poor Saint-Saëns. He seems doomed to remain, as one wag put it, a first-rate second-rate composer. But what do we require of a piece like this? It’s tuneful. It has its surprises. A mysterioso opening gives way to Saint-Saënsian lushness, and in this piece, too, the slow movement effectively explores the fiddle’s singing voice. And then there’s the perpetual-motion showpiece of the finale, which Bell takes at an even faster clip than Heifetz dared and comes out a winner.

Rounding out the disc is the even-less-heard (but gaining ground) sonata by Maurice Ravel, written in the mid ’20s and inspired by American jazz, as the second movement. It’s marked “Blues,” although it’s (fittingly) more of an impression than something Gershwin might have penned.

Again, the playing is idiomatic, drawing its power from a shared vision of what the music suggests, and having another lively perpetual-motion finale is yet another bonus from this extremely enjoyable disc.