Music review: Another memorable visit by violinist Joshua Bell

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 8:27 PM

Joshua Bell's visits here tend to be memorable. Aside from his famous turn busking in a Metro station a few years back, the celebrated violinist seems to invoke the wrath of the weather gods; both last season and this, he has had to reschedule recitals here due to snowstorms. On Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, however, all was well, inside the hall and out. In a rather limited program of three big 19th-century duo sonatas, Bell and pianist Sam Haywood delivered a trademark performance of athletic virtuosity and yearning, unquiet musicianship.

Bell's playing is unusual: His sound is penetrating but not lush; the vibrato never really flows or blooms. He treats the violin as an "instrument" rather than an extension of the human voice. Bell doesn't automatically change the color of sound from one register to another, instead following the internal architecture of the music. He is in no way a cold, intellectual player, but, like Gidon Kremer, beauty of tone is only one expressive element. Bell is searching for musical truth and knows that it cannot always be captured in the practice room. While he's clearly worked out what he wants to say, exactly how he says it often comes on the wing.

The highlight of the evening was the Schubert Fantasy, a piece that's almost too hard to play well.The violin figurations lie badly on the instrument, and only the greatest artists can extract real music out of them.Though he sounded a little breathless at times, Bell was magnificent, as was Haywood. Grieg's Sonata in G after intermission was something of a letdown, musically, but the duo made the best case possible for it.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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