Joshua Bell

Brahms, Schumann: Violin Concertos

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In his early thirties, Bell is already a big-name violinist. Hearing him in these two works affirms the correctness of that coveted status. He has technique, a gorgeous, if slightly icy, tone, and a mature interpretive sense. In short, he has all the tools necessary to continue the rise to the top of his trade.

Bell's reading of the Brahms may not be revelatory (whose of late has been, though?), but neither will it detract from his meteoric ascent. This is a fine account, with intelligent phrasing, scrupulous attention to detail, a subtle, well-judged use of portamento, and a technique that can summon both a feline finesse for moments of delicacy and a lean, lionesque attack for assertive passages. The cadenza (Bell's own devising) is surprisingly interesting and expectedly well-played (track 1; beginning at 17:24). The delicious swagger in Bell's rendering of the double-stopped theme in the finale is another highlight here. Recent recordings of some merit in the Brahms have been the Zukerman/Mehta (RCA) and Mullova/Abbado (Philips). I've had a predilection for the Kremer/Bernstein (DG) from the early digital era.

But the Schumann ... This may be the primary reason to purchase this disc. As the reader may know, this work from 1853 languished in obscurity, unperformed until 1937, owing to the artistically myopic vision of Joseph Joachim, whose violinistic virtuosity was surpassed only by his musicological stupidity in surpressing the work after Schumann's incarceration in an insane asylum where the composer spent the last two years of his tragic life. Luckily Joachim didn't destroy or lose the score poor Schumann had written for him, but placed it instead in the Prussian State Library from where his great-niece, violinist Jelly d'Aranyi, rescued it in the 1930s. It has steadily grown in popularity over the years and is now rightly entering the standard repertory.

Bell declares his special affinity for this work in a note included in the album booklet, and his committed playing corroborates his strong feelings. He catches those elusive, emotionally neutral elements in the first movement with the appropriate classical grace and muscle. He renders the beautiful second movement with tenderness, and never succumbs to any tendency to overstate the main theme's sweetness with too much vibrato or other affectation. Bell reads the finale with energy and wit, but doesn't skirt the quirkiness (vague hints of the composer's insanity shortly to come or just typical Schumann?).

I don't want to make it sound as though this disc is strictly Bell's show. Christoph von Dohnanyi leads the Cleveland Orchestra with an insightful baton throughout. He draws crisp, powerful playing from his Clevelanders in the Brahms and just as alert and incisive support in the Schumann. And, oh, how he so beguilingly reads the the opening orchestral crescendo of the Schumann, teasing out neurotic indecision, mystery, beauty--all in just four measures! This is a moment to savor! Good notes and excellent sound by London. Recommended.

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