Recording of September 2002: Beethoven & Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos

Joshua Bell, violin; Roger Norrington, Camerata Salzburg
Sony Classical SK 89505 (CD). 2002. Andrew Keener, prod.; Arne Akselberg, eng. DDD. TT: 69:58
Performance *****
Sonics *****

So it's still possible for Joshua Bell to make a serious recording. How quickly we forget that Bell was once a strictly classical recording artist who, with Roger Norrington, premiered and recorded the great and massive Violin Concerto of Nicholas Maw. Since then, each of Bell's crossover recordings have him photographed in a different designer outfit, looking dour, aloof, and determinedly closemouthed, and the performances have been ever less convincing. There are credible ears for whom Bell really can swing; as a Stephane Grappelli idolater, I hear only a contrived series of finger slides.

But even in the most Faustian bargains, he who has sold his soul can still do good works before being condemned to an eternity of Boston Pops concerts. In Bell's case, the good works are these new recording of the most well-worn concertos in the violin repertory, the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn (in e, Op.64). They're fresh, wonderful performances, the likes of which I'd not thought possible in this age of masterpiece overexposure. I always knew Bell could do it, but wondered if he ever would. That he has done so in the somewhat one-dimensional acoustic of the Salzburg Mozarteum (probably too small a venue for this enterprise) is only a minor drawback.

Bell has been performing the Mendelssohn since he was 12. I heard him play it two years later, and am relieved that this performance has infinitely greater interpretive specificity. His tone is the violin counterpart of the mid-Atlantic accent: not bland so much as neutral, which is fine when the musician behind the tone has something to say. That's the case here. Each phrase is decisively shaped in ways that grow out of the previous idea and are thus perfectly in tune with the music's rigorous yet seemingly effortless symphonic progression. In keeping with this long view of the piece, Bell makes a good case for not indulging in any emotional displays that are too extravagant; he leaves that to Norrington, whose treatment of the first movement sounds suitably dire, to a degree matched by few others.

The performance of the Beethoven is full of interpretive touches characteristic of Norrington. There's often a palpable sense of subtext—of questioning, pondering, and reaffirmation—as the first movement goes from exposition to development to recapitulation. The conductor's trademark sense of dance is piquantly evident in his treatment of the pizzicato string figures that, in other performances, are frequently lost in the orchestral wash. Though the Camerata Salzburg isn't an authentic-instrument band, its use of vibrato is minimal, and achieves the same admirable goal as have Norrington's best efforts with the London Classical Players: an engaging sense of musical narrative, as opposed to the succession of pretty sounds likely to be heard a generation ago from another Salzburg-based conductor, the late Herbert von Karajan.

It's tempting to credit Norrington more than Bell with the success of this recording, but it couldn't have succeeded without the conductor's synergy with the violinist, who is more convincing here than he has been in years. There's still a sense of detachment—Bell fans would call it dignity or classical distance—but even that is absent from Bell's arresting treatment of the cadenzas. Then comes the final surprise: Bell wrote all of the cadenzas, and they're knockouts, full of violinistic fireworks and emotional substance. The first-movement cadenza of the Beethoven has not-inappropriate stylistic allusions to the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin. Maybe Bell needs to do less performing and more composing. If he plays his own works with as much inspiration as he does these cadenzas, I promise I won't question the music's quality—at least while the performance is happening.—David Patrick Stearns