John Frayne: A ringing endorsement for violinist Bell

John Frayne: A ringing endorsement for violinist Bell

Before a packed house Feb. 1 in Foellinger Great Hall, Joshua Bell once more displayed the superlative interpretive skills that make him one of the most famous violinists before the public. Bell and his pianist collaborator, Sam Haywood, gave a conservative program of music by three great composers, Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss, ending up with encores by Clara Schumann and Henryk Wieniawski.

The three composers on the main part of the program were all pianists by trade, and it shows in their music for violin and piano. In keeping with this tendency, Haywood played the piano with forceful and aggressive virtuosity, matched by Bell's intensity, if not volume.

By the time Bell was five minutes into Mozart's Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 454, I was running out of superlative adjectives. Bell's phrasing was in the grand manner, yet done with grace and delicacy. There was a three-note phrase on an up bow that was a running delight in the first movement, and in the finale, Mozart, the comic genius, introduced teasing hesitations. By the way, Bell and Haywood, in their April 2010 recital in the FGH, began their recital with this same Sonata.

From Mozartean delicacy, Bell and Haywood went into declamatory music displaying grand passions in Strauss' youthful Sonata, Op. 18. This sonata was a favorite of Jascha Heifetz, and my linkage of his name with that of Bell's is deliberate on my part. Strauss' surging phrases, especially in the finale, elicited forceful playing from both Bell and Haywood, and the end of the Strauss work was greeted with a storm of applause.

For me, the most moving piece on the program was Schubert's "Fantasie" in C major, D 934. Bell, in his introduction, dedicated this performance to the memory of Andrew de Grado, a teacher at UIUC, and a friend and fellow performer of Bell's, who died in 1998 in Spain at the age of 37 while on a concert tour with Bell.

The gem of this unconventionally structured work is a set of variations on Schubert's song, "Sei mir gegruesst," and Heywood nudged the piano introduction to the big melody of the song in a masterful way. Bell's violin sparkled in the variations, but I had difficulty in hearing a pizzicato passage in variation one. At the end of the Schubert piece, amid a roar of applause, the audience stood, and then Bell and Haywood responded with a soulful "Romance" by Clara Schumann, the pianist wife of Robert Schumann, and Henryk Wieniawski's "Polonaise Brilliante," No., Op. 4, in which Bell offered a stunning display of violin fireworks. That Bell is a great violinist is not news, but it is the greatest of pleasures to hear him confirm it.

There was more brilliant violin playing at the Champaign-Urbana Symphony concert, entitled "Baroque Brilliance," two days later, on Feb. 3 in the FGH. The highlight of the evening was young Joshua Brown's solo playing in Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." Brown was filling in for Zachary Carrettin, who had been incapacitated by a fall. Based in Chicago, Brown is clearly a young performer of considerable promise. His sparkling playing in the Vivaldi "Four Seasons" Concertos, along with fine ensemble work by members of the C-U Symphony, ably led at the harpsichord by Stephen Alltop, gave renewed joy to this often heard composition. As encore, Brown played with dazzling bravura the most famous of Niccolò Paganini's Études, No. 24 in A Minor, on which so many famous composers have written variations.

Earlier in the program, 13 players of the Symphony, led by Alltop, offered tasteful and idiomatic performances of George Frederic Handel's Concerto Grosso in C Major, HWV 310, "Alexander's Feast," with praiseworthy contributions by concertino soloists Ion-Alexandru Malaimare and Aaron Jacobs, violins, and Barbara Hedlund, cello. This piece was followed by Johann Sebastian Bach's hearty orchestral Suite No. 1, with admirable playing by concertino players John Dee and Evan Tammen, oboes, and Megan Braunschweig, bassoon.

Like much Baroque music, the distinct voices of Handel, Bach and Vivaldi offered intimate warmth on a winter's night, reminding us that the loveliest messages may be conveyed without shouting.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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