Review: Joshua Bell and Alessio Bax at the Granada Theatre

UCSB Arts & Lectures Presented Violin and Piano Sonatas on Tuesday, October 28

Joshua Bell clearly has an ideal recital partner in Italian pianist Alessio Bax, judging from Tuesday’s performance at the Granada Theatre. Balance and communication were the hallmarks of the evening, by two young masters (Bax is Bell’s junior by ten years) who display a no frills, no fuss, strait-laced stage presence. Bell strikes me as the Clark Kent of super-violinists — humble and mild-mannered even after the cape is donned and we are confronted with undeniable solidity and power. By power I don’t mean volume and exaggerated articulations; the moments that took my breath away exhibited a super-vigilant restraint. This recital was a feast for refinements and subtleties, and Bell and Bax excelled at listening to one another.

Bell dedicated the occasion to the memory of his teacher, the late violinist Josef Gingold, whose 105th birthday anniversary happened to fall on the night. Gingold serves as a link in a lineage that connects the American violinist directly to giants like Arturo Toscanini and Eugène Ysaÿe. The program was a tour of three eras, three countries, and three distinct musical languages, beginning with two nineteenth century works. Franz Schubert’s Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano in A major Op. 162 (1817), which Schubert simply called “Duo,” is a pleasant piece of Austrian romance, brimming with the energy and light one would expect from a 20-year old. Edvard Grieg’s Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano in F major, Op. 8 (1865) is a parallel to the Schubert, as far as age goes, written when the composer was 22. But one can hear in the Grieg a Nordic spaciousness and idiosyncratic voicing of chords. This first sonata of Grieg was a premiere performance for Bell. In a recent interview with the Independent he explained that although Grieg’s other two violin and piano sonatas are played frequently, this is “a gem of a piece that should not be ignored.”

But for this reviewer, the first half served as prelude to the gravitational core of this concert: Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano in F minor, Op. 80. Prokofiev’s writing was interrupted in 1938 by Soviet political crisis and World War II, and the piece didn’t premiere until 1946. The first movement alone is a masterpiece, a mid-20th century circumspection, a lament that marches forward slowly, invariably, in quarter-note meter like refugees or weary soldiers. Bell brilliantly enunciated the agonizing soliloquy early in the movement, thick with complex double-stops; and with ease the violinist sailed through the whispery runs that followed, sounding like only memories of hope against Bax’s relentless march.

The concert concluded with two crowd-pleasing encores: Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, and one of Bell’s favorite violin show pieces, Pablo de Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella.

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