09 Sep 2006

Joshua Bell’s Good Taste

Sony Records occasionally still sends the odd CD to reviewers hoping they will give it notice.

When ‘Joshua Bell, Voice of the Violin’ arrived recently (Sony Classical 82796 97779), a little voice inside my head said, ‘Wait! don’t throw it out – see how Bell is sounding these days.’

I followed that advice and am glad I did. This is a bon-bon record, almost elevator music – but not quite. Its salvation is Bell’s musicianship and taste. The fifteen selections for solo violin and small orchestra, in this case the splendid Orchestra of St Luke’s, Michael Stern, conductor, are all familiar vocal repertory, largely operatic, a pleasing selection, actually, including: Werther’s ‘Pourquoi me r√©veiller?’ (Massenet); ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (Donizetti); and songs such as Schubert’s ubiquitous ‘Ave Maria’ and Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vocalise,’ plus some popular Spanish material – not exactly a ground breaking offering, fifteen selections in all, each three or four minutes in length. The happy word is that Bell’s performance is no less than gorgeous. He plays with a strong tone, dead-on pitch and only very light vibrato. This is no east-European gypsy; rather, a sterling American musician from Bloomington, Indiana, and a fine violinist. His program is old-fashioned and hackneyed, for sure. But it was meant to boil the pot, not offer musical innovation, and is a companion disc to Bell’s ‘Romance of the Violin,’ more of same issued earlier (Sony SK87894). Bell makes no artful attempts to ‘sell’ the music; he plays it straight and it works.

In the early 20th century, programs of transcriptions and operatic selections for piano or violin were common, and Albert Spaulding, the handsome and accomplished American violinist who became an international celebrity, played such recitals often, as did Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler and many another famed fiddler. Bell makes no apology for his violin transcriptions, in fact is happy to write, “In the end, playing these pieces compelled me to think like a singer – to breathe with the musical line, to articulate each note...and finally, with the help of my 1713 Stradivarius violin, to discover the very human-like voice of the violin.” No argument from me. Bravo!

Here is the ‘however’: The program ends with Richard Strauss’s heavenly song ‘Morgen’ (Tomorrow), played by Bell and the St. Luke’s, and sung by the noted soprano Anna Netrebko. A disarmingly simple-sounding series of ascending chords wafts the poem of the Scottish-German John Henry Mackay to memorable heights of quiet reflective sentiment. Thus the poem:

Tomorrow

And tomorrow the sun will shine again,
and on the path where I will go,
it will unite us, the happy ones, again,
amidst this sun-breathing earth...

And on the shore, the broad, blue swells,
we will climb down, silently and slowly,
speechless we will gaze into one another’s eyes,
and the silence of bliss will drop upon us...

[Sony gives the German and this English text, but no translation is credited.]

Strauss sets these sweet words so succinctly, with such restraint but with warm color and quiet longing. It’s a haunting song, that thrives in Bell’s violin. So, one wonders why Netrebko was hauled in to participate in this elegant closing number? If a singer were really needed (she was not, given the quality of Bell’s work), why an operatic prima donna who is only concerned with voice and makes no audible effort to enunciate the German text clearly or color it with emotion? Bell’s program survives but Strauss’s wunderbar song does not, and I missed a real lieder singer in the moment. Perhaps La Netrebko’s name will help sell the disc to the unsuspecting, though she is not featured on the cover or title pages. Otherwise, ‘Voice of the Violin’ offers good notes, wonderful recorded sound and delightful violin performances. This is a fine Mother’s Day gift. [Sorry, Joshua!]

© 2006 J. A. Van Sant, Santa Fe.