Joshua Bell and Alessio Bax

Joshua Bell, the American violinist, gave a recital in Alice Tully Hall last night. His pianist was Alessio Bax (rather than Bell’s accustomed partner, Sam Haywood). I recall that, a few years ago, Bax appeared with the cellist Sol Gabetta in Weill Recital Hall. The pianist is Italian and, to my knowledge, no relation to the late English composer, Sir Arnold.

On the Bell-Bax program were two more B’s: Beethoven and Brahms. (No Bach.) There were other composers too.

I will not skip my sartorial duty: Bell was wearing his trademark black pajamas—those Mao-style p.j.’s—but with what appeared to be a silk vest (also black). There, I have done the best I can, without the skill of a fashion critic.

The program opened with a Beethoven sonata in A major, not the “Kreutzer” (Op. 47) and not the Sonata No. 6 (from Op. 30), but the earliest one, No. 2 (from Op. 12). The beginning of this sonata is very tricky—tricky to coordinate between violinist and pianist. But Bell and Bax did, superbly.

As the sonata progressed, Bell made mistakes here and there. I am talking about minor technical imperfections. But these were minor indeed. The sonata was full of life, with the notes fairly leaping off the page. Bell played with love and relish (while never straying from taste).

Alessio Bax was a “full partner,” as they say. He was clean and clear—tidy but not unfeeling. Both players were in balance, individually and together.

Next on the program came some Brahms—his Scherzo in C minor (known to be used as an encore). The Scherzo ought to have alacrity, even alarm. From these players, it did. And the middle section, in C major, had warmth, heart—again, love. There was zero sterility in Joshua Bell on this night.

After the Scherzo came more Brahms—a proper sonata, his Sonata in D minor. Bell did not leave the stage. He went right into the sonata, after the Scherzo (while allowing for applause, I should say). I myself would have left the stage. Why? Well, the Scherzo seemed a bit like a prelude—a prelude to the sonata. And it is not. I would have liked a bit more separation. In any event . . .

This sonata ought to begin with great evenness, and so it did. In the first movement—and throughout the sonata, for that matter—Bax was elegant and self-contained. But he was not so self-contained as to be unfeeling. (Have I said that already?) The second movement, the Adagio, had the warmth of a hymn. (Have I said that already, too?) Bell emitted a squeak or two, but these were of no consequence. We knew we were not listening to a studio recording.

In the final measures of the Adagio—quiet, reverential—a cell phone went off. As always, audience members reacted with audible disapproval, making the problem worse. They just can’t help themselves. Bell kept his concentration throughout all this, which I admired.

In the third movement—a kind of scherzo, I suppose—the piano must ripple, and Bax duly rippled. In the final movement, Bell, in particular, was utterly passionate. Always musical, but utterly passionate. And supremely Romantic. Brahms is often called “the Classical Romantic,” and usually people emphasize the Classical part of him, it seems to me. The Romantic should not be slighted.

Here was something I had never seen before: A lady in the audience handed Bell, not a flower or a bouquet, but a hanky. He used it to wipe his brow charmingly.

I will give you another aside: Bell sometimes communicates to his chamber partner, or partners, in sniffs. This will let you know when to launch a phrase, for example. I could not help thinking of a presidential debate or two.

One more thought: As Bell played, I told myself, “You should not be so accepting of too little passion—too little emotion, too little feeling—out of musicians.” Bell taught me, or re-taught me, that, in music, a performer can take detachment too far.

The first piece after intermission was probably the highlight of the recital. We heard the best of Bell. He played one of Ysaÿe’s sonatas—which are unaccompanied—namely the Sonata No. 3 in D minor, “Ballade.” In it, Bell was full-bodied. What I mean is, he made a full-bodied sound, not one of those wispier, scratchier sounds that some violinists like to adopt in Ysaÿe. I appreciated this—as I did Bell’s musicality, and the sheer excitement that he generated. The sonata was downright operatic, and not wrong for that.

Midway through, I thought, “The virtuosity is merely incidental.” I had pretty much forgotten that Bell was playing virtuosically; I was simply listening to the music.

From the beautiful violence of the Ysaÿe, Bell, with Bax, went to the coolness of the Debussy Sonata. Both players were sensitive, and French. In the middle movement, Bell played the sweetest sigh you ever heard. The Finale was beautifully calibrated, delivering excitement without showiness (or opera).

Speaking of opera: Bell and Bax closed the printed program with the Carmen Fantasy of Sarasate. The pianist opened with a nice, appropriate bounciness. When the violinist came in, he was a mezzo, La Carmencita herself. Supervia would have loved it (and Sarasate would have too).

In the Lento assai, which falls in the middle of the suite, or fantasy, a woman behind me whispered to her companion, “This is a terrifying movement.” She might well be a violinist. And she was right. This movement requires nerves of steel, which Bell showed. In the final movement—that E-minor swirl—he was sloppy as hell. But by then he had made all the points necessary.

He gave the crowd just one encore, Manuel Ponce’s little star of a piece, Estrellita. He played it with fondness, beauty, charm—and no condescension whatsoever.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: If Joshua Bell were a foreigner with an exotic name, instead of good ol’ Josh from Indiana, critics would acclaim him more than they do. Yet he is acclaimed enough, by one and all, and why not?

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