One word would seem to sum up everything that is great in Joshua Bell’s playing, and that is pressure. He instinctively knows just how much to apply to every bow stroke in order to capture exactly what is demanded from the statement in question. As he performed pieces by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, amongst others, he revealed how this ability enables him to tackle contrasting phrases so that each sounds unique in its own right, and yet feels part of a coherent, developmental whole.
Accompanied by Sam Haywood on piano, Bell opened the evening by revealing the extent to which in Schubert’s Rondo in B minor D895 (1826) the decorative effects complement the essential line so that the two feel as if they are one and the same. Bell tackled the arpeggios in the opening Andante with a combination of aplomb and precision, while he brought both power and a dance-like exuberance to the Allegro. Here, in particular, we saw several identical phrases follow each other, with each sounding unique by virtue of the style of playing. The Più mosso also saw Bell languish in certain passages before moving into a bolder, more rhythmic gear with a mere flick of the wrist.
The Violin Sonata in E flat, Op. 18 of 1887 was the final chamber work (excepting the Capriccio sextet which is part of an opera) that Richard Strauss ever composed, and even then he was only 23. The opening Allegro ma non troppo revealed the extent to which Bell and pianist Sam Haywood worked together to reflect each others’ sound, with the violin ‘echoing’ one of the piano’s initial triplet figures. The Andante cantabile was achingly beautiful, but Bell’s skill really came to the fore in tackling the more turbulent — but, in his hands, highly rhythmic — passages. In the final movement Bell indulged in the slower phrases without ever making them sound melodramatic, and brought a notable clarity to his playing in the richer passages.
The first piece of the second half did not appear in the programme and was announced from the stage. It was Gershwin’s Three Preludes arranged by Jascha Heifetz for violin and piano. It was not difficult to understand why Bell should be so adept at performing in the early twentieth century American classical style. His playing combined the precision and exuberance that the best jazz demands, and he carried off the rhythms with an ease that did not make them feel as if they were being consciously constructed at all.
One reason why the Gershwin was played was that it enabled listeners to recognise his influence on Prokofiev in his Violin Sonata No. 2 in D, Op. 94 bis of 1944, not least in the momentary flicks of pizzicato within the first theme of the Scherzo. This was a masterful performance in which Bell’s dancing across the strings revealed his exquisite lightness of touch, while the foreboding subtexts were brought out by Bell and Haywood alike. The overarching impression was that these two players understood intricately how this piece worked for the flute (it was originally conceived as the Flute Sonata in D), but also how they could use their violin and piano to take it to places out of reach to any other instrument — or perhaps even player.
This evening saw both violinist and pianist reveal the full extent of their talents and flair, as well as a degree of modesty. In announcing that they were to play Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor Bell made no reference to the fact that he had created this arrangement himself.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on iPlayer for a week
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org