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CD Review: Joshua Bell Revitalizes Timeworn Concerto

Tchaikovsky’s Masterpiece Reinterpreted With Bell’s Personal Touch

By Tony Hwang


Joshua Bell, violin

Berlin Philharmonic

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Joshua Bell, a Grammy-winning violin soloist, has a reputation for giving flashy, emotionally-charged performances. He is unafraid to stray from strict correctness in the name of artistic freedom. “Tchaikovsky,” his latest album, was released Sept. 20 in the U.S. and, a sign of his popularity, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Classical Chart. In this recording of slightly under an hour, Bell successfully tackles one of the most virtuosic pieces in classical repertoire: the Tchaikovsky violin concerto.

The concerto, with all its fame, has become so widely performed by professionals and students alike that at times it sounds clich d. I have played the piece myself and in consulting recordings for inspiration, I have definitely felt repetitiveness among them. It is crucial that new recordings of the concerto contain unique interpretations to keep the interest of listeners. Bell, backed by the renowned Berlin Philharmonic and the excitement of live performance, does not disappoint.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, begins with a brief introduction from the orchestra and leads into an unaccompanied solo entrance from the violin. As soon as Bell starts to play, one is immediately impressed by his clarity of tone and confident phrasing. He produces great contrast between crisp and smooth sound with ease. This high level of performance never lapses throughout the rest of the recording. Unlike in some of his earlier recordings, Bell’s proficiency is top-notch even in the most technically challenging passages of this Tchaikovsky. Although young among the prominent violinists, Bell has already performed with almost all major orchestras worldwide, and his experience in maintaining the correct balance between the orchestra and soloist shows in this recording.

In fact, at times it seems that Bell is so comfortable with himself that he allows tempi to fluctuate almost as if playing an extended cadenza. There is no hesitation to pull back the pace to milk particularly juicy harmonic progressions for all they’re worth, such as in the second movement, Canzonetta. He also has no qualms about blazing through fast passages as in the Finale. Further, Bell strays from the usual performance decision to make cuts in the third movement, instead claiming that the reiteration of previous melodies is necessary for the piece to make musical sense.

The classically-trained ear does not immediately accept such deviations from the standard interpretation. There are moments that cause the listener to wonder whether Bell is too carried away with leaving his personal mark on the concerto, but after hearing it again, most of his inspired decisions become much easier to understand. His ability to present, even explain, his reasoning through clearly-shaped contours of the melody over the course of a movement becomes apparent. It is uplifting to see that even the most over-performed of pieces can still be presented as innovative.

In addition to the three famous movements, Bell graciously also includes the M ditation in D Minor, Tchaikovsky’s original idea for the concerto’s second movement, as if to help educate classical music enthusiasts in the history of the concerto. The M ditation carries heavier emotional weight than the Canzonetta, and occasionally breaks the typical slow and sweet melody of a second movement to wail dramatically in the high register of the violin. With its complete range of expression, this piece seems to function better as a stand-alone performance. Finally, Bell rounds off the compilation with the deep yet lively “Danse russe” from Swan Lake, an exhilarating conclusion to an all-Tchaikovsky repertoire. This recording is a good example of a violinist displaying soloistic flair as well as emotional maturity, and it will earn the appreciation of Tchaikovsky fans for years to come.