Thursday, April 14, 2011


April 12

A Western superstar without much appeal in Prague.

The most important thing to know about Joshua Bell is that he plays the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius violin, using an 18th-century bow made by Francois Tourte. That quickly settles the question of whether he’s worth going to hear.

The sound is straight from heaven.

And the violin is in good hands. Bell is a gifted player who utilizes its full potential, drawing out golden, heartbreakingly beautiful chords, or setting a piece on fire with crisp, intricate fingerwork. It’s a superb match of a first-rate talent with a world-class instrument.

So it was surprising to see such a small crowd turn out for Bell’s appearance with British pianist Sam Haywood on Tuesday. Or in retrospect, maybe not. For one thing, the audience was noticeably different from the usual classical music crowd at the Rudolfinum – younger, comparatively lowbrow and so adulatory that it reminded this reviewer of fans who follow rock stars from city to city in the States, hanging on every note of every performance.

The character of the concert was also atypical, at least by Prague standards. Most recitalists don’t stroll out on stage in casual wear – Haywood in a sport coat and Bell in a loose black shirt, sporting an early Beatles bob. Nor do they indulge in the grandiloquent gestures that Bell and Haywood favor, with increasingly exaggerated body language capped by arms raised in the air or similar dramatic flourishes to finish a piece. In cheaper clothes, Bell and Haywood could have been a hip jazz duo.

Which is pretty much how they played. Bell in particular puts a distinctive stamp on everything he touches, with changing tempos, unusual phrasing and sharp emphases, and a highly contemporary style of interpretation. In his hands, the music lingers here, dashes there, gathers momentum and races to an emotional climax. It’s the kind of modern approach that makes audiences burst into excited applause – and would have professors at the Prague Conservatory wagging their fingers and urging more attention to what’s on the page.

The three pieces Bell and Haywood are playing on their current tour – sonatas by Brahms and Grieg and Schubert’s Fantasy for violin and piano in C major – give both performers a chance to show off their impressive technical skills. But they are not regular performing partners, and much of the concert sounded like two people playing along with each other rather than playing together. When they hit that collaborative groove, to borrow the jazz vernacular, they could be very good. But for most of the night it sounded like Bell was the superstar and Haywood his accompanist, despite the camaraderie the men displayed.

The best part of the concert was a generous set of three encores that took the level of playing up a notch, in particular a Wieniawski polonaise and a Chopin nocturne. Those are violin showpieces, but for the first time, the duo sounded integrated. And given a chance to run with a complex short work, Bell can be breathtaking.

In some ways, the concert offered a telling contrast between the Old and New Worlds. The flash-and-dazzle style that impresses American audiences is too nouveau for European tastes – hence the small crowd. But it’s part of a larger trend in the West toward integrating different genres and styles of music, reflected very well by Bell himself. Some of his most popular music was done as film soundtracks, and on his latest release, At Home With Friends, he works mostly with crossover stars like trumpeter Chris Botti and double-bassist Edgar Meyer, and pop singers like Frankie Moreno and Sting.

In short, this is not music for purists. But like many things from the New World, it has energy and vitality and flair, and a bold sense of experimentation. And no matter what your tastes, you should never pass up a chance to hear that divine violin.

For more on Joshua Bell and his legendary Stradivarius:

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