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The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville’s aging Civic Center is not the best venue in the city for chamber music, and yet Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood made the very best of it in a monumental performance to remember. The program which featured four sonatas was a throwback to a more formal recital style where there were no remarks from the stage (save the announcement of the encore) and where the music was allowed to speak for itself. Haywood used his iPad and a chair in lieu of sheet music and a bench, his stillness a foil to Bell’s dynamic movements. Need to dispense with the hovering presence of a page turner? Now there’s an App for that.
Bell is one of those artists one hopes to hear in a lifetime of listening. His tone and mastery of the instrument are the musicality of legend, the sum of which can only fully be appreciated by hearing him live. His career now includes the position of Music Director of The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, in addition to his roles as composer, soloist and chamber musician. He performs on the exquisite 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius violin with a late 18th century French bow by François Tourte.
Sam Haywood, a native of Britain’s Lake District, enjoys an active career as concerto soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician, regularly accompanying Steven Isserlis in addition to Bell. He has composed several works for piano and chamber music. His latest recording, “Chopin’s Own Piano,” is the first recording ever to have been made on Chopin’s own Pleyel piano of 1846.
The program opened with Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F, the later of two such works he composed in this key. Though Mendelssohn died in 1847, his works are still being discovered — this 1838 sonata was found and edited by Yehudi Menuhin in the early 1950’s. The opening Allegro vivace initiated by the piano is a movement of exuberant lyricism enhanced by its rhythmic energy. Bell’s jewel-like tones and power of projection, coupled with Haywood’s arsenal of articulations in flawless ensemble, generated tremendous excitement which erupted into applause after the movement’s end. It was somewhat comical to see the various ways Bell tried thereafter to coax the audience into silence between movements — staring at the page, keeping the bow raised etc. — but these freeze-frame maneuvers simply could not contain this room of listeners. The second movement Adagio was a display of relaxed musical camaraderie, the intimate tone of which frequently moved below the decibel level of the hum of the heating system. A stormy interlude only briefly interrupted the general peacefulness of this beautiful movement. The final Assai vivace was an “elfin scherzo” movement for which the composer was famous, a flurry of fast notes tossed off effortlessly.
The Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2 dates from the composer’s post-Heiligenstadt period when he was wrestling with the onset of deafness for which there was no cure. The music embodies this struggle against his unfortunate fate in the same key as his Symphony No. 5. Although music for two, it sounds as though Beethoven was still thinking of full orchestra as the piece is symphonic in scope (four movements) and style. The first declamatory theme begins in the piano and is punctuated by dramatic pauses, then imitated by the violin. The second theme, a quasi march, is as whimsical as the first is dramatic — together, these constitute the material for a series of weighty developments that ensue. The second movement Adagio cantabile is a song without words decked out in beautiful, jewel-like ornaments with several embellished returns to its A section. The duo maximized the fun of the third movement Scherzo: Allegro with its misplaced accents and other humorous elements. The Finale: Allegro: Presto begins with a low rumbling in the piano, an idea that only Beethoven could write and which returns incessantly in this sonata rondo movement. The duo recaptured the driving intensity of the opening movement as well as some lyrical moments to close the sonata in an excited flurry of dramatic musical gestures.
After intermission, Bell alone returned to the stage for a performance from memory of Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 27, No. 3 ("Ballade"). Ysaÿe was a Belgian violin virtuoso with an international career as a performer and teacher, and who had considerable influence on violin playing into the twentieth century. Josef Gingold, Bell’s former teacher, was one of his pupils. This is the third of six sonatas Ysaÿe composed and published in 1924 after hearing the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti perform Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In a single movement that begins with a recitative motif which returns at the end, the piece has both a narrative sweep and cadenza-like figurations, much like Chopin’s ballades. The memory of this stunning performance by one of the greatest artists of our age will be forever with me.
The final work on the program was Franck’s Violin Sonata in A of 1886, composed as a wedding present for Ysaÿe. Its first movement, a tranquil Allegretto ben moderato, is a foil to the large second movement which embodies many romantic extremes — by turns tempestuous, moody, and lyrical and utterly striking in its scope. The third movement Recitative-Fantasia (Ben moderato-Largamente-Molto vivace) is a dreamy, trance-inducing oasis, fascinating in its own ebb and flow of energy. The final movement opens famously in the piano with its brief lyrical melody in quarter notes followed in canon by the violin. The volcanic energy of its final moments brought the audience to its feet. For an encore, Bell and Haywood played their own delicate transcription of Chopin’s poignant Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posthumous.