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Review: The Dynamic Duo of Bell and Denk Deliver a Powerful Memorial Concert at Carnegie

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, February 9, 2018

With an eagle’s wingspan and a long arching torso, Bell’s charismatic playing fills the Isaac Stern Auditorium. In a recent, lofty, recital program alongside his frequent pianist, the expressive Jeremy Denk, paid tribute to the hall’s namesake Stern, in an annual memorial concert commemorating Stern’s efforts to save this important hall from demolition. Bell and Denk are keeping his tradition alive with their masterful chamber music collaboration.

Joshua Bell has the ability to toss things off with great ease, yet never without a polished sheen to his tone. As a duo, he and Denk appear to absorb large amounts of repertoire like sponges and devour the music with their formidable chops, playing with ferocious sweep and abandon. This is especially on display in their alacritous reading of Mozart’s B-flat Violin Sonata, K. 454.

The energetic duo drives the first movement with a strong emphasis on the larger pulse. Denk’s sixteenth-note figures and trills are injected with vitality and always fleshing out shapes, never stagnant. In the exquisite slow movement, Bell’s violin sings warmly, pressing into the afterthoughts, the little moments of human frailty and that embellish Mozart’s lyricism, combined with Denk’s sensitive pedaling, the movement’s ravishing harmonic surprises are beautifully shaded, but not exaggerated in time. Denk and Bell chase each other around playfully in a fast flowing reading of the last movement Allegretto.

Richard Strauss’s Op. 18 Violin Sonata in E-flat Major from 1887 must be one of the most demanding pieces in the violin/piano literature, certainly for the pianist, owing to the density of the piano part, if nothing else. But Jeremy Denk seems undaunted by this thicket of thorns that is one of the Salome composer’s earlier works (and his last piece of absolute music — not adhering to a literary program or story).

Bell and Denk begin the first movement grandly, before quickly savoring a soaring, soft lyrical passage. But as the movement quickly becomes restless and impassioned, the duo dives headfirst, ultimately fashioning the sonata into a symphonic poem — Bell playing with a philharmonic’s palette of colors, and Denk a conductor’s vision for grand gestures and choreography of textures.

In the poignant second movement, Bell and Denk have discovered a multitude of heartfelt truths expressed herein, and Bell’s control in the highest registers of his instrument, supported by Denk’s facility with the fanciful filigree in the piano part, transported dreamily, until we are startled (spoiler alert) by Denk’s clever dispatching of Strauss’s coy quotation of the slow movement (in the same key of A-flat) of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. The last movement, which begins gloomily before unleashing a lengthy torrent of vigorous playing by both violinist and pianist, brings the veritable Romantic epic full circle.

Following intermission, Bell requested that the audience not applaud between the Janáček Sonata and the Schubert Fantasy in C Major, as they wanted to seamlessly segue from the rippling despair of Janacek’s conclusion with the rippling beginning of the Schubert Fantasy. The duo’s sweeping approach might be most successful in this quirky sonata by Janáček. The first movement’s strange guttural outbursts (first listeners might have thought occasional passages sounded like a cat jumping down on the piano), and fleeting, mournful fits of yearning, modal, folksy melodic fragments, require such an ear for the grand gesture. Totally informed by Janáček’s detailed score, Denk and Bell employ daring dynamic contrasts and a keen eye for background and foreground, and most crucially, grounded rhythmic underpinnings, to achieve a carefully crafted illusion of spontaneous outburst.

Janáček writes dialogue between the piano and violin, exchanging musical questions and answers (even if, in Janáček, the answers are not as forthcoming) especially in second movement, through a complicated rhythmic give and take, Denk’s knack for generous rubato was well-applied in the fourth movement of the Janacek, which is rhapsodic in the extreme.

If there’s a flaw in their partnership, it’s they make some things sound too easy. But the energy in their playing finds ecstatic release in the Schubert Fantasy, a substantial “late” work, characteristically overflowing with long melodies and unexpected key changes, but uniquely rhapsodic for Schubert. After a rapturous introduction, a jaunty tune turns from minor to major in busy, joyous figuration handed between the instruments, expresses a sense of unbridled relief.

Denk’s reading of the opening statement of the stately A-flat theme (which is then subjected to a dizzying array of variations) was exceedingly romantic. But his handling of the subsequent virtuosic variations demonstrated a fine ability to thin out texture to keep the ear focused. Even though a treacherous variation was a tense affair (I would have been exhausted by this point in the program), the piece pays off with a passage that recalls the ecstasy of late Beethoven (him, again) and climaxes in a triumphant blaze.

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Joshua Bell, violin, and Jeremy Denk, piano, in Annual Isaac Stern Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall on February 7, 2018.

MOZART Violin Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 454

STRAUSS Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18

JANÁČEK Violin Sonata

SCHUBERT Fantasy in C Major, D. 934

 

Cover: Joshua Bell (violin) and Jeremy Denk (piano) in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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