Star violinist Joshua Bell opened the Broward Center’s classical series in brilliant style Saturday, in a concert that ranged from one of Schubert’s sunniest works to one of Prokofiev’s darkest.
Although there were blocks of empty seats, the turnout was better than that for classical events last season. And in a hopeful sign for the future, the crowd was considerably younger than the typical South Florida classical audience.
Bell, accompanied by the pianist Alessio Bax, opened with Schubert’s Duo Sonata for Violin and Piano. Bell’s warm, graceful and effortless performance was the payoff of a technique honed on the concertos of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. While the Schubert was not a showy work, his masterful control of the bow allowed him to bring a natural and effortless sense of phrasing to the sonata, into which Schubert poured more melody than lesser composers might have distributed among three works.
Next came Grieg’s early Violin Sonata No. 1, completed when the composer was 22. Bell and Bax abandoned some of the restraint they showed in the Schubert and opened up in full-throated Romantic style. Bell brought a dark and throaty tone to passages on the lower strings and a diabolical edge to the rapid notes of the last movement.
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A couple of fast passages lacked articulation — climactic arpeggios in the first movement, runs in the last — so some notes whiffed past without really being heard, but that’s a quibble in a performance that overall did the work justice.
After the jovial Schubert and the youthful Romanticism of Grieg came Prokofiev’s grim and eerie Violin Sonata No. 1, composed largely during World War II.
Bell and Bax embraced the mist and darkness. There wasn’t much conventionally pretty music for Bell to play. He brought a rough, craggy tone to passages on the lowest string, and for sheer creepiness, not much could beat his performance of the sonata’s ghostly runs up and down the fingerboard.
He opened the second movement with the brutality of a bayonet attack, harsh and aggressive, but with a few moments of hard-won lyricism poking through musical violence. The third movement was the strangest, a series of mysterious, fog-bound interludes. Bell varied his tone smoothly and expertly — allowing his vibrato to die away at moments, powering it up at others, and playing in an improvisatory manner that suggested a man finding his way through a dark forest.
The last movement is deceptive. It opens with a jaunty, major-key melody, and appears we are headed for the familiar territory of the darkness-to-light journey with which many works resolve. But there was no happy ending. The mood darkened, and Bell and Bax effectively managed the transition back to the gloom with which it began.
A recital focused on three sonatas requires a strong pianist as a partner. A soloist in his own right, Bax brought to the performance a big tone, a smooth technique and a complete absence of deference to his better-known partner, fully holding up his end of the recital.
But if the first three works represented a partnership, the last two pieces were all about Bell, both announced by the violinist from the stage. First came Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise. The violin’s top string often is the star of big melodies, like the upper range of the soprano’s voice. But the inner strings can have their own, more mellow, beauty, as he demonstrated in the Vocalise, drawing radiantly autumnal tones from the violin.
The evening ended with the only real virtuoso work of the evening, Introduction and Tarantella by the 19th century Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. A work like this may appear to play to Bell’s strengths, but in some ways it yielded the weakest performance of the recital. It may not be possible to play the Tarantella section too fast, but Bell came close, emitting a blur of notes that might have had more shape had he taken them a bit slower.
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