Violinist Joshua Bell’s recital Friday evening, opening Spivey Hall’s 32nd season, was like rummaging through a time capsule. It’s a curious sensation, hearing the ever-brilliant Bell as he applies his aristocratic style, as if from a by-gone era, to beloved classics — two from the early 19th century, two from the early 20th.
Peter Dugan, a splendid pianist with his own blossoming career, made a like-minded partner. They opened with Franz Schubert’s D Major Sonatina (D. 384), charming across its elegantly contrasting movements. Bell’s many strengths were immediately apparent. That silvery, glossy tone, always in the clouds. That whole-body enactment of the music, as he gets on tip-toe for soaring high notes then swoops low as he digs into the next heavy phrase, as if physically carrying the weight of the music within his instrument. (Bell performs on a 1713 Stradivari violin, known as “the Gibson,” that once belonged to Bronislaw Huberman, among the most deliriously creative interpreters on record.)
After the sunny Schubert warm-up, the skies darkened for Beethoven’s C minor Violin Sonata (Op. 30, No. 2). Dugan’s rumbling piano opening had us imagining an unhinged Ludwig van himself, pounding at the keyboard, all storm and fury. The duo played it to the hilt, and beyond. At times it felt like Dugan’s very loud piano depicted the weather while Bell’s piercing violin was a man standing in defiance against howling winds. In moments of calm, the two were in intimate dialogue, often very moving.
The lovely Adagio was lucid and effortless in delivery, with Bell’s closing pizzicato plucks speaking to us privately, just as an actor in the theater might step out of the action to offer the audience a private aside. They barely took a breath before launching into the playful Scherzo. By ramming it all together they tightened the feeling of a narrative. They had us thinking about the long arc of a drama. Surely this is what Beethoven intended.
The sonata’s finale was all the more intense, of clean attacks and ferocious lines. It was life-or-death playing. This superlative level of performance, you had to think, is why Joshua Bell is a star.
The Beethoven turned out to be the evening’s highlight.
They returned after intermission with Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun,” the middle section of Baal Shem — Three Pictures of Hassidic Life, from 1924. It’s often delivered as an internalized prayer, with flashes of agitation and turmoil, but also moments that are meditative and confessional, with an improvisational feel. Like the Beethoven, Bell and Dugan played it as extroverts at maximum intensity and scorching heat, a five-alarm fire.
Maurice Ravel, for his Violin Sonata No. 2, gorgeous and complex, found inspiration in American blues and jazz, and he was among the first European composers to put these new sounds into standard classical forms, like a sonata. But by Bell and Dugan’s reckoning, this wasn’t a work of cool French sophistication to contrast with the rest of the program, just another opportunity for intensity and extreme virtuosity. There was something generic about the outer movements.
The middle “Blues” movement wasn’t loose and didn’t swing. What the sonata lacked in personality was made up for athleticism. I’m not sure the trade off was worth it. Still, the almost-capacity Spivey audience roared its approval.
Yet it’s a vintage attitude to perform everything in a more or less similar style, as Bell did Friday.
We admire today’s incredibly well-educated opera singers, for example, flexible in an extremely wide range of music, so that Baroque Handel doesn’t sound like Romantic Wagner. But we also adore singers from generations ago. When we exhume their old 78s from that time capsule , we hear an all-purpose style that served to communicate individual interpretations — and we call it a Golden Age.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.