Daniil Trifonov appeared with more hair on him than I recalled from any previous visits, so let’s get it out of the way. Too skinny and affable to resemble Rasputin, he rather evoked memories of a 19th-century student of the sort extensively exploited by Dostoevsky…or one step away from cultural stereotypes, of a mischievous Slavic ghost of the woods, a wood sprite, Леший.
For the robust Russian-speaking part of the crowd, this guy was the main draw. For others, who came to hear a mellifluous violin celebrity, it posed a fair warning. Melodic glories of the strings would rest on a somewhat unpredictable foundation. For his Celebrity Series recital last night at Symphony Hall, Joshua Bell chose to travel with a shifty and mysterious companion who could be depended on for surprises. Uncanny and thrilling musicmaking resulted.
Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, op. 12 no. 1 for Piano with the Violin at once disclosed something a-brewing in the relationship between the two protagonists. Today’s public primarily expects a diva musician to summon an accompanist, regardless of what we know about the composer’s idea of an equal partnership. And we do know that Beethoven placed the piano first in the titles of his “violin” sonatas. Trifonov struck a perfect balance from the initial Allegro con brio. Without overtly fighting for primacy, he spun his lines with verve and freedom. The audience heard ongoing reminders that when instruments meet each other at the end of the bar, or the end of a phrase, it is a consequence of thoughtful artistic agreement, and not a predestination.
Bell and Trifonov’s take on Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata struck me as a bit more problematic or at least unorthodox. One expects the first movement, Andante assai, to maintain certain momentum, a pensive walk albeit at a slumbering pace. This time, however, the powerful and self-indulgent violin voice stole the show, and the relentless march forward was all but forgotten. For the memorable ‘wind in the graveyard’ episode in the end of the movement, Prokofiev asked for a mute on the strings, but in this outing it sounded pretty bright. We’ll chalk it up to unstoppable power of Joshua Bell’s famous Strad. But with the arrival of the brutalist rhetoric of the Allegro brusco, I ceded all reservations. The exulted violin theme soared out of the violence and restored the spirit of the sonata. That spirit carried through the peaceful nasal sounds of the third movement and into the still violent but rather optimistic Finale with its episodes of folksy tunes and rhythms, before ending back on our original pensive walk with its philosophical thoughts.
Joshua Bell started the second half of the concert with a few comments: a brief introduction of Ernest Bloch’s piece he was about to dive into, and a charming personal link to the Franck Sonata. Bell’s teacher Joseph Gingold had studied with Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe to whom Cesar Franck had presented the Sonata as a wedding gift — a connection warmly appreciated by the audience. He also mentioned his pleasure of playing in possibly the greatest hall on the planet. Amen to that, though I’ve certainly encounter halls with seats that squeaked lot less.
Bloch, incidentally also a pupil of Ysaÿe had conceived Nigun as an attempt to reflect the enigma of the Jewish soul, and there is no reason to doubt its effectiveness, though to me it primarily delivered a feast of violin glory. Bell played it with unabashed power, while Trifonov remained a good sport, despite the somewhat trite and Orientalizing nature of the accompaniment.
The Allegretto in Franck’s familiar Sonata started fresh and strong, as it tends to, no matter how many times or on what instrument one hears it . When piano started its first interlude, there came the heart-stopping turn of the phrase that gave initial taste of this interpretation. The full sensation arrived with the stormy seas of the Allegro second movement — always an exciting episode, but I don’t recall ever hearing such level of tension. It absolutely rocked — if you excuse the modern cliche that may be rarely used on these pages. The primordial chaos stirred and tried to break out, with full drama of a thwarted Liszt etude. The violin tried to steer, with Bell’s phrasing very vivid and persuasive, but the listener’s sense of certainty had vanished. Shaken and stirred, we drifted through the peaceful third movement and to domestic bliss of the final Allegretto, where the instruments respectfully chased each other in canon. And only the rumblings of the valedictory passage on the piano reminded us that any semblance of peace is but a thin veil. Mechanically bringing my hands together, as the hall erupted into yells of appreciation, I sat there trying to understand what the hell has just happened.
As a feeble attempt to restore a bit of diversity after this heavily white male evening, the duo encored with Clara Schumann’s Romance op 22 number 1, played simply and beautifully. But the second encore returned to the sort of thrills the evening was about: Brahms’s first Hungarian Dance. The juicy double stops of the violin seemed to restore some semblance of world order, with violin firmly in charge, and piano toeing the line.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.