Unusually the liner note deserves a mention ahead of the music: the fine pianist Jeremy Denk, half of this regular duo, manages to encapsulate the elusiveness of French romantic music with such insight in a few sharp sentences, his words almost shape the way we listen to this superbly played disc. Saint-Saëns' wistful and emotional Sonata No 1 and Ravel's bluesy, ironic sonata have a whipped, airy quality. Joshua Bell plays with fire and finesse, with Denk a powerful ally. Franck's dark-light violin sonata, mysterious, ardent and far more than the sum of its parts when played as majestically as here, forms the centrepiece of this seriously beguiling disc.
Joshua Bell's fresh approach to these violin warhorses makes for an unexpectedly inviting listening experience. In the Mendelssohn he marries his bright tone to forthright phrasing in a manner that communicates the music's emotion without sliding into the gooey sweetness heard in some interpretations. There's little if anything hackneyed about Bell's reading, indicating he's thought about the work anew, right through to the stylistically appropriate cadenza he composed himself (Bell cites research that suggests Mendelssohn's friend Ferdinand David may have actually composed the original cadenza). Roger Norrington's crisp, period-informed style, with its pointed accents and propulsive energy easily fits in with Bell's conception.
French Impressions, Joshua Bell's first recital program for Sony Classical features the Grammy Award-winning violinist and his longtime friend and recital partner, pianist Jeremy Denk, offering a passionately nuanced interpretation of works by Saint-Saens, Ravel and Franck.
Though Bell was only 20 years old when some of these works were recorded, his playing is fresh and exciting, and his technique is nearly flawless. Bell plays these well-known Romantic melodies with a warm, beautiful sound and with natural (yet spontaneous) phrasing. Bell's intonation is quite good throughout (there are just a few sharp high notes), and the cadenzas and highly technical passages are pulled off with stunning virtuosity and grace. There is not a single moment where Bell sounds unsure of himself.
When the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields began to popularize Vivaldi's music in the 1970s, it was on the cutting edge with its light, warm chamber orchestra sound, burnished to technical perfection yet sounding completely different from its symphonic cousins. Now, a recording like this one, with star violinist Joshua Bell, sounds conservative in comparison with young bucks like Fabio Biondi on the historical-performance side or even the young Dutch firebrand Janine Jansen. This big-budget (by classical standards) release is the kind of thing you don't see so often now, with a big poster showing Bell carefully decked out in a partially undone tie, as well as individual full-color cards reproducing, in Italian and English, the descriptive seasonal sonnets that provide the program for the four concertos. It could have collapsed under its own weight, but Bell pulls it off. Conducting the Academy strings himself, he forges tight, not-overly-sweet recordings of Vivaldi's four familiar concertos, with a nice contrast between orchestra and solo that showcases his easy, compelling agility and his Heifetz-like sharpness and brilliance.