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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Grieg, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Sarasate, Joshua Bell (violin) and Simon Mulligan (piano), Wigmore Hall, Thursday 15 April 2004 (AN)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Violin Sonata in G minor, D.408
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) Violin Sonata in C minor, Op.45
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Sonata in G for violin and piano
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Sérénade mélancolique, Op.26
Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) Introduction and Tarantella, Op.43


The boy has charisma, good looks, and he also happens to be an exceptionally talented violinist…as though musical-heartthrob Joshua Bell needs introducing! With a violin in his hands at four years, a still youthful Mr Bell has today amassed numerous accolades for his appearances in both traditional concert halls – as soloist and chamber musician – and in the cinematic setting as body double and recording artist for the Grammy Award-winning film The Red Violin.

On a technical level, this recital could not be faulted. Bell and Mulligan shared a vision and an execution that depended on nothing less than perfection and mutual sensitivity. And yet there were definite strengths that defined the Grieg, the Ravel and the Sarasate as the musical highlights.

The concert launched with a powerful statement of the Schubert unison opening. Animated physical gestures on Mr Bell’s part found their immediate resonance in an interpretation that brought out a sense of excitement and immediacy to the score. However, one did wonder whether Mr Bell’s penchant for indulgent slides and delayed vibrato was entirely appropriate – perfect ingredients for the sensuous Ravel that would follow but arguably a little misplaced on this relatively conservative Schubertian territory. In spite of this reservation, the textural fragility of the Andante was delivered with exemplary gracefulness. The Allegro moderato met all the standards of precision – Mulligan is the perfect accompanist – but would have benefited from a greater assertion of instrumental individuality.

And so the fiery Grieg Allegro molto ed appassionato came as a wonderful antidote to its cautiously executed predecessor. For the first time, we heard the full capacity and splendour of Mr Bell’s sumptuous ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius violin – here was a bolder, lusher tone that engulfed the modest hall in an overwhelming sound. So much so that I only too often caught myself neglecting modest concert etiquette and swaying feverishly to the music…

Mulligan’s nimble fingerwork set a delicate counterpoint to Bell’s expressive folkish song in the Allegretto espressivo alla romanza. An impeccably manoeuvred transition led into a tightly articulated imitative Allegro animato with an even more prominent rusticity. The piano anchored an excitable violin part as both instruments enjoyed a buoyant percussive flirtation.

After the interval the duo treated us to a fantastic performance of the Ravel sonata. This was arguably their strongest collaboration. The range of effects from mellifluous bowing in the Allegretto to frantic pizzicatos of the Allegro were achieved with meticulous detail and yet all the while maintained a fluidity and freedom in keeping with the composition’s jazzy undertone.

The second movement, titled Blues, made a welcome invitation for Bell’s voluptuous slides where Mulligan, an experienced jazz pianist, was obviously in his element. A schmaltzy violin line soaring over a deliberately tactless bass made for a delightful parody.

Nothing quite surpassed the casual brilliance of Ravel’s ‘flight of the bumblebee’-like Perpetuum mobile. Mr Bell sailed through the 200-odd bars of unbroken semiquavers without a flinch: the consummate performer.

The sheer labour of a succession of three substantial sonatas called for some lighter entertainment. Hence the last two musical items: Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade and Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella. The latter was the more successful of the two, for the Tchaikovsky, in spite of Bell’s sensitively conceived tonal colours and handsomely-paced climax, fell short of genuine emotions. Moreover, Mulligan’s heaviness at the keyboard dampened the mood.

A speedy Sarasate finale that at the same time sustained the subtleties of an untiring round of characterisations was sensational. And for an encore the sweet charm of the well-loved Melody by Gluck. Mr Bell did himself a favour by leaving his violin backstage for the ensuing bow – can’t be taking any chances with a performance of this calibre!

Aline Nassif



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