Music Review: Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk at Strathmore Music Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

Joshua Bell is one of the prettiest violinists on the concert stage today. No, I'm not referring to his looks, though certainly his clean-cut Ivory-boy handsomeness (down to the teenage-style haircut he still sports, at 41) has helped him earn the status of a heartthrob superstar. Whenever I hear him, I spare a thought for a late, lamented copy editor who used to bristle with indignation if he had to edit any material of mine that was critical of this particular idol.

But it's Bell's sound that's really pretty -- indeed, blatantly pretty. Prettiness, in his playing, becomes something like a moral value, and certainly an aesthetic one. He can make any music sing. That has undercut, for me, some of his performances in the past: strong music can be devalued when it seems merely there for aesthetic effect.

On Wednesday night, however, at a sold-out Strathmore, in a program with a lot of muscle, and partnered with the athletic and terrifically gifted pianist Jeremy Denk, he sounded pretty darn good.

Certainly it was a program that bristled with rough edges, and certainly Bell smoothed them: His basic position is one of gentleness. But when so many young players seem eager to demonstrate their passionate intensity, it was a welcome change to hear someone who was content to caress the sound without manhandling it.

Not that Bell is lacking in mannerisms: They've been a pitfall for him in the past, and they emerged most here in Brahms's Third Sonata (the second piece on the program), with slightly prissy little interjections in his dialogue with the piano in the third movement and a querulous note emerging when he stepped up the emotional pace in the finale.

But in the Janácek Sonata for Violin and Piano, which opened the program, his reading transformed the music's cragginess into something more malleable and articulate. Each movement, however distinctly it began with raw folk tunes or shards of sound, gave way to a slow section in which Denk visibly and audibly gave all his focus to supporting his partner's sound. At last, the instruments' conversation died away into sleep, still talking quietly as it drifted off.

The violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye tailored each of his six quirky unaccompanied violin sonatas to a different soloist, and followers of the Washington Performing Arts Society got to appreciate their individual differences in an extra dimension this week, since on Tuesday, Nicola Benedetti offered the Fifth, and Wednesday, Bell played the Second. Written for Jacques Thibaud, intertwining Bach fragments with the theme of the medieval "Dies Irae" (often quoted by composers through the ages since), this sonata sounded a lot more urbane than the one Benedetti chose, though Bell's delivery was considerably responsible. In his hands, the quirks became ornaments -- the "Dies Irae," a lovely elegy; the pizzicati issuing with the golden plinks of a music box -- though the final theme and variations remain a virtuosic tour de force.

Denk and Bell are fine balances to each other: Denk's strong playing helped add heft to a sound that from Bell always risks lapsing into mere beauty. Indeed, the tension born of the sense that Bell was slightly outside his comfort zone was one of the evening's strengths.

Franck's Violin Sonata in A is often supposed to have been a model for the piece by the fictional composer Vinteuil in Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"; its final movement, to me, arouses the kind of obsessive, almost stifling response that Proust's description evokes. It was a wonderful fit for these two players: the violin's amber tone draped languorously over the incisive piano. Bell ended the evening by going back deep into his comfort zone, and into the territory of the French salon outright, for the encore: the meditation from the Massenet opera "Thais." You could say it was pure saccharin, but it was too ravishingly pretty to brook criticism as trivial as that.

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