The mystique of the violin is to music as turning lead into pure gold is to alchemy. The only difference is in music the trick has been accomplished. The violin, surounded by wisps of mystery out of names like Stradivari, Guarneri, Stainer and places like Cremona and Absam, artists like Paganini, Sarasate, Szigeti, Menuhin, Kreisler and Heifeitz, weaves its spell out of ordinary wood, glue and varnish and strings that vibrate when nurtured by strands of horsehair stretched taut in a bow. It can produce a sound as silky and silvery as the light of a full moon. It can defy gravity and fly under deft fingers up and down the fingerboard. It can dance with a lilt that keeps the feet from hardly touching the floor. It can also chew into the very fibers of life with angry and incisive slashes that leave one exhausted with cathartic emotion. The music of the violin inspires the poet to write verses and the ordinary man to see beyond himself. It can tell a tale without words or pictures and can take you places you have never been before.
So, you see, when an accomplished violinist like Joshua Bell performs at, say, Duke's Page Auditorium, as he did on February 11, you are called to attention, you are beckoned into an experience not soon to be forgotten. Bell is a master, known for his poetic musicality. It has been more than twenty years since he made his highly acclaimed orchestral debut with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was 14 then and looked younger. He is in his thirties now and, with his boyish hair and bright blue eyes, he still looks younger than his age. His 27th CD, entitled Romance of the Violin, was recently released by Sony. He has performed with most of the major orchestras around the world. He played John Corigliano's music in the film The Red Violin, and the album captured the Oscar® for Best Original Score. At the awards ceremony, the jubilant Corigliano proclaimed in his televised acceptance speech, "Joshua plays like a god."
The selections played in Durham were very special, beginning with music by a composer who knew well the instrument and its singing capabilities. Johannes Brahms' Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78, was composed shortly after the untimely death of his 24-year-old godson, the violinist and poet Felix Schumann. Although the sonata reflects Brahms' sadness, its overall effect is more tender than despondent. It is a three-movement work containing fragmentary references in the first and last movements to two of Brahms' songs, both of which incorporate rain in a symbolic and poetic manner. In the first song, the rain awakens dreams of childhood and would "bedew my soul with innocent childish awe," and in the second, raindrops and tears mingle, so when the sun shines again "the grass is doubly green: doubly on my cheeks glow my burning tears." This is not to suggest that this piece is "program" music, but it does give us possible insight into Brahms' psyche and that of the performer and the listener, too, as it unfolds. Indeed, in the hands of Bell and his marvelous accompanist, Jeremy Denk, the music unfolded like fresh green grass in an Austrian meadow on which Brahms walked pensively into our hearts, with the warmest of sensitivities.
After the Brahms, the duo – as well it should be billed, for there were times when it seemed one artist had to be playing both instruments - sang, danced, and levitated its way through Saint-Saëns' Sonata No. 1 in d minor, Op. 75, one of the most technically daunting works for violin and piano. One violinist put it this way: "Only virtuoso playing... will reveal the brilliant edge of (this) work." That said, Bell and Denk just went right out and did it – after, I am sure, unspeakable hours of tedious and laborious work. It was brilliant from start to finish, played with apparent effortlessness that belied the obvious challenges. This sonata, composed around the same time as the "Organ" Symphony, is arranged in the same way, with two pairs of movements, played without pause. The first two movements were lyrical and rapturous. The sighing theme of the second movement was played as expressively as a lover's whisper or a friend's words of encouragement. The third movement, a scherzo, uses a waltz theme in the piano under a chorale-like melody in the violin; it leads without pause into the finale. This is the movement of the sonata that makes violinists blanch. The program notes describe it in this way: "It begins with a very rapid staccato five-note ascending and descending motive, like a child's five-finger exercise on steroids." This continues through most of the movement at breakneck speed, either as a theme or an accompaniment under a reprise of the lyrical theme from the first movement. It was an awesome performance, technically impeccable and musically delightful, that left no doubt of Bell's right to the acclaim of critics everywhere.
The second half of the concert could not exceed the Saint-Saëns performance, though neither was it less. Janácek's Sonata for Violin and Piano was picturesque and wonderful. Bartók's Hungarian Folk Tunes (from For Children, arranged for violin and piano by Joseph Szigeti) could only put a smile on your face and quicken your pulse.
The final piece on the program, Wieniawski's "Variation on an Original Theme," Op. 15, is a virtuoso showpiece. Bell referred to Wieniawski as the violinist's Chopin. At one point, where the soloist was plucking with the left hand and bowing at the same time, I found myself looking around the stage to see who else had come on board to assist in this phenomenal passage. For an encore, Bell and Denk performed a transcription of a Chopin waltz.
Joshua Bell is all he is acclaimed to be, and he's still in his thirties. Aficionados of the violin who are amazed and dazzled by the sparkle of stars can anticipate a bright future for this artist in the classical world.