Joshua Bell

The Essential Joshua Bell [Decca]

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The Essential Joshua Bell is really more a snapshot of Bell's 1990s recordings that attempts to capture the essence of his playing than a "must-have" album. These are all from his days at Decca, before he moved to Sony Classical and started doing more crossover recordings, so the selections are standard violin repertoire items, many familiar -- such as the Mendelssohn and Brahms concertos -- a few less so. What is nice about the excerpts here are that they are not all flash and no substance. Therefore, it does give a good picture of Bell's skills, predominantly the way he has of always finding some joy or beauty in a piece, no matter how serious or dark it is, even more than his virtuosity. The disc also has a good mixture of concertos and chamber music, including a movement from Chausson's Concert pour piano, violon et quatuor à cordes, Op. 21. There is an Adagio from a Mozart concerto, but the music is primarily from the Romantic era, with the Prokofiev and Bloch thrown in to represent the modern era. The sound quality is generally very good, although there is a noticeable and unflattering difference between the Kreisler tracks, from a 1996 album with pianist Paul Coker, and the Grasse Waves at Play, from Bell's first album, 1988's Presenting Joshua Bell with pianist Samuel Sanders. There are probably good programatic reasons for the ordering of the works, but swapping the placement of the Grasse and the Prokofiev would have eliminated that difference. This collection is a much better introduction to the skills of Bell than that first album. The only problem is that the single-movement excerpts of larger works will leave listeners wanting more.

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