In 2007, Joshua Bell played incognito to an unsuspecting and unappreciative audience in the Washington DC subway. It’s safe to say that the audience in Boston Sunday afternoon not only knew what to expect, but also, judging from the scrum outside the doors of Symphony Hall, they couldn’t wait to hear him play his magnificent 1713 Stradivarius as part of the Celebrity Series’s 75th season.
Bell gave a performance that was broad-ranging, emotional, thoughtful, and technically stunning by turns. At 45, he is in his prime, though he looks younger. And since he began his professional career more or less at 16, his 30 years of musical development makes him an artist of the first water. In addition, Bell, through his ease and compelling stage presence made Symphony Hall into an intimate chamber music space. There was perfect balance between the piano, even on full stick, and the violin. Bell stood a bit forward of the piano, which both allowed him to occupy more stage space, and also probably assisted the balance.
Bell opened with the Sonata in G minor “Devil’s Trill Sonata” by Tartini (1692-1770). According to the composer, he had a dream in 1713 in which the Devil appeared to him and played his violin. The resultant sonata, now a staple of the solo violin repertoire, is a fiendishly difficult tour de force, including double and triple stops and the dramatic trill which gives the piece its name. Bell played the opening Larghetto with little vibrato in a style which is informed by Baroque practice without being a strictly “authentic”. It was thoughtfully done, and made a great contrast to the fireworks ahead. Bell has tremendous bow control, with admirable evenness of tone even in the most complex of chords. The assured competence of his playing is one of the most stunning I have seen. Everything was in its place, no matter how challenging. It is fun to think, too, that when Bell’s violin was being carved, this piece was “hot off the press”.
The next work, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major, op. 96, was a cheerful one, reminiscent of the Pastoral Symphony in mood, with bits of rustic German dance thrown in. The 2nd movement, Adagio espressivo was notable for an expressive piano bass line and almost impossibly sustained violin lines, beautifully played by Bell and the polished Sam Haywood, his accompanist and sonata partner.
The final piece listed on the program was the Divertimento for Violin & piano, after “The Fairy’s Kiss” by Stravinsky. Written in 1932 and dedicated to Tchaikovsky on the 35th anniversary of his death, the original ballet uses little known themes by Tchaikovsky interpreted through Stravinsky’s later harmonic language. Stravinsky adapted the work for both an orchestra suite and this charming violin piece. Bell really came into his own here. The glassy sul ponticello (playing on the bridge), and the ghostly harmonics gave a modernist twist to the otherwise lush language. Indeed, the Pas de deux Adagio blooms into something as romantic as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. There were also humorous bits, particularly the last movement, and both Bell and his admirable accompanist seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly. The performance earned them a standing ovation.
Bell came back on stage after this work to address the audience. His manner is warm and familiar, and he congratulated the Celebrity Series on its birthday, noting that he had first appeared here under their banner in 1991 “when I was 6”, which got a good laugh. The next two pieces, Melody by Tchaikovsky and the Polonaise Brilliante by Wieniawsky showed the emotional range Bell can bring. The warm, sweet Tchaikovsky earned a collective “mmmm” from the audience, as though they’d just consumed something satisfyingly delicious, and the flashy Polonaise showed that Bell still had reserves in his quiver.