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Review: Joshua Bell in recital with pianist Alessio Bax at Disney Hall

Laurie Niles

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Published: October 28, 2014 at 5:54 AM [UTC]

When one thinks of a "recital hall," generally a 2,200-seat venue does not come to mind.

Yet within the first quiet moments of Schubert's Violin Sonata in A major, D. 574, Joshua Bell and pianist Alessio Bax somehow cast such a strong feeling of intimacy over their recital, it seemed to take place in a living room rather than the capacious Disney Hall on Sunday evening.

Of course, architect Frank Gehry meant Disney Hall to be a "living room for the city of Los Angeles" -- but Joshua Bell knew how to play it that way. The choice of repertoire -- the Schubert, Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 8 and Prokofiev's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80 -- showcased music with fine detail, moments of stillness mixed with the movement, and a nice range of effects for piano and violin. The hall did its job, but so did the performers, arresting the attention of their large audience with their finely focused music-making.

The Schubert flowed like water, with both performers sensitive to one another and well-balanced in their interplay. Did Schubert, writing these pieces as a fairly young man, ever think that anyone would play this music with so much care? They captured the energy of the second movement, the changing moods of the third movement, everything so finely put together.

I couldn't decide if I'd ever heard the Grieg Sonata -- if so, it's certainly not a piece I've heard frequently. The melodious first movement was in turns sunny and stormy, and full of decisive "endings" that don't really end the movement. The actual ending just trails into the sky. The second movement has some folksy passages, skittering spiccato, and the little pizzicato that ended that movement made audience members chuckle audibly. The third movement leaps high, dives low, and Joshua and Alessio were decisive in every gesture, sure-footed traversing this changeable landscape.

After intermission came the Prokofiev, a serious and challenging piece, and here is where I noticed that I was listening to Joshua Bell for the wisdom in his playing. He may have the timeless look of a young man, he may entertain us at times, but he also has the conspicuous maturity of a concert artist that has been at his craft for 40+ years.

The first movement of the Prokofiev feels like a journey over a dark landscape: quiet plodding, with the piano in its lower end. Joshua's vibrato could range from nothing to molto, sometimes in the course of just a note, and his double-stops had reassuring stability. Toward the end of the movement was a shivery effect, fingers running lightning-fast up and down the fingerboard, muted, and illuminated only by long quiet bows. Prokofiev told Oistrakh that he meant this to sound like "the wind in a graveyard," according to the program notes, and indeed it did. "Ooooh," came a spontaneous murmur from an audience member behind me.

By contrast, the second movement was loud, busy and intense. The muted third movement seemed almost French; it had every kind of watery, sparkly, shimmery, wash-of-color effect I could think of in both piano and violin, and Josh's melodious high playing was simply gorgeous. The fourth movement was frenetic, full of energy, then changing, back to shivering in the graveyard in the end. What a journey.

Joshua announced several encores from the stage: Rachmaninov's "Vocalise," which sang easily and was spellbinding in his hands. Then came Sarasate's virtuoso piece, "Introduction and Tarantella," which showed his astonishing precision and well-calculated dynamics.

What a treat.

* * *

After the recital, both Joshua Bell and Alessio Bax came to the lobby to sign CDs for audience members, who formed a nice long line to greet them. Here I am with Joshua after the recital:

Laurie and Joshua

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