In a Schubert Club recital, Bell offered searing, ethereal and incendiary playing.
"Is Joshua Bell one of the great violinists?"
Overheard during intermission at Bell's Schubert Club recital Saturday with the excellent pianist Jeremy Denk, the question seems not only fair but imperative. From his mid-teens, the tousled American was lauded for his sovereign technique and for a sophistication beyond his years. But Bell, though still a tad tousled, turned 40 in December. Praise of his technique now sounds patronizing; the "beyond his years" tag has ceased to apply.
What sort of musician has he become?
Saturday's program, stronger in its first half than its second, showcased a more thoughtful Bell than I had heard previously. (This may be partly attributable to his new job at Indiana University, where he has stepped into the shoes of his own late teacher, the probing, humane Josef Gingold. Teaching, if done seriously, forces a confrontation with the whys and wherefores of music, as a touring virtuoso's life does not.)
After a bold reading of Tartini's dream-inspired "Devil's Trill" sonata that reveled in the wildness of its last movement, Bell and Denk threw themselves into Prokofiev's desolate F-minor Sonata. This was the heart of the evening: a searing oceanic performance of a 20th-century masterpiece. Bell's playing, ethereal and elemental by turns, was the finest I have heard from him; Denk, if occasionally a bit too deferential, earned his equal billing.
After intermission, the 19th century: In Dvorák's "Four Romantic Pieces," Bell's tone, warm but not too sweet, was balm on a biting night. (That he plays one of Antonio Stradivari's most fabled instruments, the "Gibson ex-Huberman" of 1713, hurts not at all.) As for Saint-Saëns' D-minor Sonata -- the sort of bravura barn-burner that will always tempt a violinist of Bell's gifts -- I can imagine a more inquisitive approach, but not a more incendiary one. The last movement, engineered to bring the audience to its feet, did just that.
So is Bell indeed one of the greats? As always, it depends. If being a great violinist means leading public taste, expanding the repertory and finding new expressive possibilities in the instrument, the answer, for the moment, is no. If, however, it means fusing with the violin to create a singular and absorbing musical personality, the answer, to judge from Saturday, is a resounding yes.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.