Schubert: Sonatina in A Minor, D. 385
Strauss: Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 94bis
Even if I don't particularly like the winter season in general, especially as it is currently dragging on and on, I have to say that I fully enjoy the embarrassment of richness it brings in terms of exciting performances popping all over New York City. A case in point was the recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at the Alice Tully Hall last Wednesday night. I did not even know what would be on the program, but the thought of hearing those two distinguished musicians tackle just about anything in this wonderful space was enough to make me wait for Hump Day even more eagerly than usual.
The mysterious play list turned out to be a well thought-out lesson in violin sonata history starting with the classical style of Schubert. True to form, Joshua Bell did not fail to inject some discreet but unmistakable vitality to the proceedings, and was elegantly seconded by Sam Haywood. That was all very nice and pleasant all right, if not something I'd consider earth-shattering.
Once the Old Viennese work out was of the way, however, we moved right on to Strauss' hot-blooded Late Romanticism, and the gears definitely shifted big time. After the fairly inconspicuous opening, the two musicians wasted no time authoritatively sweeping us off our feet with dazzling technical acrobatics, lavishly lyrical passages and a highly dramatic mood. The effect was so powerful that a good chunk of the audience spontaneously erupted in applause after the all-around gorgeous first movement. Sam Haywood proved to be a deeply committed and downright compelling pianist, but Joshua Bell was by all accounts on deeply familiar territory here, and all eyes and ears were unsurprisingly focused on him. That's when the sheer beauty of his tone, his flawless command of his craft and the communicative generosity of his playing reminded us how he has become the classical music superstar - a rare title - he is. And we can all but assume that my neighbor was summing up the general consensus when she eventually turned to her husband and breathlessly whispered "He is so wonderful!".
After Strauss' late 19th century riveting work, we jumped another few decades forward and into Russia this time for Prokofiev. His Sonata No 2 is certainly not lacking in intense lyricism either, but it also overflows with icy dark passages, abrupt rhythm changes, poignant melancholy, quirky melodies, high-spirited energy and much more. This endlessly treacherous minefield was negotiated with consummate musicianship by the duo, who got to use a wide range of their impressive virtuosic skills, from understated refinement to high-flying feats all the way to the high-speed grand finale.
After the official program was over, we got treated to two extremely different and equally enjoyable "official" encores, the first of which being the appropriately calming "Après un rêve" by Fauré. An all-time favorite among violin lovers, this ethereal work gently bloomed in all its romantic dreaminess.
The second encore, Sarasate's "Introduction and Tarantella", is a fun way for a violinist to brazenly showcase his bag of virtuosic tricks. Joshua Bell did such a good job at that that applause broke out while he was playing, a barely noticeable pause in the composition apparently fooling quite a few folks.
Probably surprised but resolutely unflappable, he carried on with his usual irresistible enthusiasm.
The last and unofficial encore came up more as a matter of timing than anything else. Since the legendary pianist van Cliburn had passed away during the day and the two musicians had visited him in his Texas home a few days earlier while on tour, they dedicated the lovely Mélodie from "Souvenir d'un lieu cher" by - Who else? - Tchaikovsky to the recently departed piano master. A truly heartfelt farewell to a truly unique musician.