Dallas — The first time I heard Joshua Bell perform was in 1988. I was a teenager, and he was just out of his teens himself. He performed one of the Mozart concerti, No. 5, I think, and I felt as if I had just heard a really special interpretation of Mozart.
These days, Bell and I are both middle-aged, and that’s not all that has changed. There’s no question that Joshua Bell is one of the greatest violinists in the world. But what he is great at, now, is not so much interpreting the works on the program. What he is great at is the industry of being Joshua Bell.
There are things about Bell’s playing that no one else can do. His technique is dazzling, almost preternaturally so. His intonation is well nigh flawless. His bow control? I’d give my right arm to have that level of precision. (Wait. That wouldn’t work out, would it?) His signature mobility on stage—almost as if he’s dancing as he plays—doesn’t have any appreciable negative effect on his playing; he’s that solid.
Audience members who wanted to hear the legend that is Joshua Bell on Thursday were no doubt delighted. Those, like me, who wanted to hear the well-curated program of Schubert and Grieg and Prokofiev interpreted effectively may have left a bit disappointed.
Playing violin is like so many other things in life: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Joshua Bell can, for sure. He can do anything the violin itself is capable of doing.
But that doesn’t mean that the fast movements of the Grieg Sonata in F Major, Op. 8, need to be taken at quite such a breakneck tempo. It’s as if Bell’s goal were to impress us with his own abilities, rather than show us the subtle musicality contained within Grieg’s lovely sonata, subtlety that is lost when tempos are too fast and phrases go flying by like runaway horses.
The Prokofiev Sonata in F Minor, Op. 80 handled Bell’s showmanship rather better. It is a dark, moody, yet bravura piece. Bell was not afraid to get a little dirty in the passages on the lowest string of the violin—he was willing to let his 1713 Stradivarius growl. Beauty, after all, is not the only aesthetic, as Prokofiev often shows us. Bell ably met the technical demands of the piece, although again, the final movement is marked Allegrissimo, but that’s not Prestissimo. The motive seemed to be to wow the audience, not to interpret Prokofiev’s music.
The first sonata on the program, Schubert’s A Major “Duo,” Op. 162, similarly was technically near flawless but left me oddly uninspired. Although pianist Alessio Bax, a local resident and faculty member at SMU, was a fine collaborative pianist on this concert, both he and Bell were often too heavy in the Schubert.
Encores, announced from the stage, were Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” as arranged for piano and violin by Jascha Heifetz, and Sarasate’s “Introduction and Tarantella.” These pieces ably demonstrated two of Bell’s hallmarks: the Rachmaninoff showed off his astonishing lyricism, while the Sarasate awed listeners with his thrilling technique.
One of the difficult aspects of being a performer of Joshua Bell’s caliber, and fame, must be that when he plays, expectations are very high. In this case, if the listener’s expectation was to be electrified by hearing a violinist who plays better than almost anyone else in the world, expectations were certainly met. If, however, the expectation was to hear the music, the way Joshua Bell used to play it when he was just a boy from Indiana, rather than an international superstar, the listener Thursday evening might well have walked away unsatisfied.