Review: Joshua Bell in recital at Benaroya Hall

By Melinda Bargreen

In today’s pantheon of concert violinists, Joshua Bell occupies a place near the top – and his Benaroya Hall recital with pianist Sam Haywood demonstrated again why Bell deserves his acclaim.

The recital program offered three important works: Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill” Sonata (Op. 1, No. 10), Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major (Op. 90), and Stravinsky’s “Divertimento for Violin and Piano” (after “The Fairy’s Kiss”). The playing was “gold standard” in quality: beautiful, unforced tone; lyrical interpretations; technique that made even the trickiest passages sound easy.

He is fun to watch, too, with a charismatic stage presence that rivals any virtuoso performing today.

Bell can play bravura passages with the best of them, but he knows when to back off – when, for example, to let the Tartini sonata float like a butterfly. (His pianist knows this, too, and follows Bell like his own shadow.) The Beethoven sonata emerged with a sunny, golden tone quality, in phrasing that was pliant and flexible, and lines that were precisely sculpted. In theAdagio espressivo movement, Bell’s tone was almost piercingly sweet, with an arresting quality that was completely different from the three surrounding movements.

The Stravinsky piece, with its balletic origins and vividly colorful soundscapes, was pure pleasure – from plaintive folk melodies to jolly peasant dances, broadly melodic movements, and even a feisty tango. Bell drew a full range of colors and styles with his bow, tossing aside the technical challenges and making them sound easy. This Divertimento represents Stravinsky at his most charming, and Bell made the strongest possible case for the music.

Not surprisingly, the program’s conclusion brought a vigorous ovation that demanded encores. Bell’s response was refreshing: a brief chat with the audience, complimentary to both Benaroya Hall and the victorious Seahawks (who had been greeted that day by more than 700,000 fans upon their return to Seattle). Bell said he and Haywood had prepared two encores, and identified them in advance: no awkward business about whether a continuing ovation merited still more returns to the stage. They offered up Tchaikovsky’s charming “Melodie,” all nobility of tone, and then Wieniawski’s aptly named “Polonaise Brilliante,” performed in a grand virtuoso style that brought down the house. Bravi!

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