Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor
Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Major
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major
Bartok: Rhapsody No.1 for Violin and Piano
After a busy week full of large scale performances, this week serendipitously promised more intimate musical experiences, but certainly no less enjoyment. And that started on Wednesday night with the annual recital by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and his current piano accompanist Sam Haywood in one of my favorite concert halls, Alice Tully Hall.
Having bought my ticket long before the program was announced, I showed up knowing nothing about it. But when I finally got around to checking it, I was pleased to notice that in between sonatas by the traditional German suspects that are Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms proudly stood less commonly heard but equally appealing pieces by Norwegian Edvard Grieg and Hungarian Bela Bartok.
So I decided to forget about my rude awakening at 4 AM by a couple of chatty dudes presumably trying to clear the icy sideway below my bedroom window, and the even ruder realization four hours later that they had only cleared the sidewalk across the street from my building. In all likelihood, Hump Day would end in a better way than it had started.
Beethoven was not as expertly acquainted with the violin as with the piano, but still had enough knowledge about it to create spontaneously engaging works for both instruments together. Therefore, his Violin Sonata No. 4 kicked off the performance full speed ahead. Although there were quieter passages now and then, the main mood was buoyant and free, discreetly emphasizing the intrinsic charm of the composition and the easy-going chemistry between the two musicians.
If Beethoven had already reached the ripe age of 30 when he wrote his Violin Sonata No. 4, Grieg was only 22 years old when he came up with his Violin Sonata No. 1, which probably explains the piece's impetuosity and playfulness. Discreet hints at Norwegian folk tunes were found among the catchy melodies, and a generally happy-go-lucky spirit was definitely palpable as Bell and Haywood successfully put their more experienced skills to work for a totally uplifting result.
After intermission, a more mature Brahms kind of cooled off the atmosphere a bit with his beautifully crafted Violin Sonata No. 1, which opened nonchalantly and kept a relaxed pace, all delicate poetry, compelling lyricism, and the occasional vague suggestion of somberness. The composer of one of the most famous violin concertos ever unapologetically wrote radiant lines for the instrument, which Joshua Bell predictably handled with his signature dramatic flair, but the piano was not forgotten and, among other special opportunities, Sam Haywood got to start the lovely Adagio with remarkable finesse.
The official program ended on a rambunctious Hungarian note with Bartok's Rhapsody No. 1. Effortless shifting from glowing refinement to earthy rowdiness, Bell and Haywood delivered wildly energetic, expertly controlled and thoroughly delightful "Lassú" and "Friss".
The audience now completely revved up, the obliging artists threw in a couple of popular encores with Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp Major, a treat in fact so memorable that a fan in the orchestra had to record it on her iPhone, and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1, which winningly combined elegance and free-spiritedness. Hump Day could not have ended in a better way indeed.