IOWA CITY — Joshua Bell is peerless perfection on violin. His artistry knows no bounds.
Friday night’s nearly sold-out crowd at Hancher Auditorium heard Bell and his 300-year-old violin in all their glory, in a magnificent two-hour recital with pianist Alessio Bax.
The pair performed three sonatas and three encores, each piece keeping listeners on the edge of their seats, holding their breath as each final note hung suspended in midair before fading into silence, broken only by gasps, thunderous applause and multiple standing ovations.
“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard,” a young woman told her friend as they exited the auditorium.
I was wrong when I tried to explain in earlier conversations that Bell is just a slight step below cellist Yo-Yo Ma. No, he stands firmly next to Ma as one of the most important classical instrumentalists of our time. And how fortunate we are that his energy knows no bounds, either.
Three nights earlier, he performed in Vienna. On Thursday night, in London. The next night, Iowa City. Not only did he perform virtuosic pieces in his first Hancher appearance since 2003, he and Bax graciously stayed another 45 minutes for a free meet-and-greet. Both signed autographs for fans, and Bell smiled for the camera with them. All ages lined up, including three little children who could be heard thanking their dad for permission to stay out past their curfew.
As Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director, said in a previous interview, “This was a concert for the memory book.”
Bell chose sonatas by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Brahms that complemented each other beautifully, painting vivid pictures with sound. Each 19th century piece embraced the standard sonata form with a lush, slower middle movement offering a lovely contrast between lightning quick beginning and ending movements.
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The Mendelssohn Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major launched the recital with a joyous flurry, reflected not only in the music, but in the movement of both musicians as their artistry flowed through their heart and soul. Moments of angelic beauty gave way to dramatic bursts of energy in this piece, written in 1838 and discovered in the 20th century.
Grieg’s passionate, dramatic Sonata No. 3 in C Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 45, took listeners on a merry chase through a Norwegian wood that elicited spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement, even though seasoned audience members know to hold applause until the end of the work. We couldn’t help it — such excellence cannot be ignored.
Bell graciously acknowledged the accolades and moved on to the “romantic” segment where delicate piano shimmering in the upper register ushered in the violin’s lush lower voices, with so much beauty as the violin doubled and countered the piano’s ascending and descending lines. A folk dance swirled through the final movement, alternating between quick plucks and a dramatic race through the trees and into a clearing where you could feel the warmth of the sun through the music.
Bell said the final work, Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in G Major, Op. 78, is one of his favorite pieces in all of the violin’s repertoire. Lovely and delicate, it rocked listeners back and forth between quiet whispers, light and lively passages and dramatic declarations from the piano, before romancing an exquisite ending.
As he returned for a dazzling encore trio, Bell first congratulated the audience for creating an environment that allowed a structure as magnificent as Hancher to be built.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in some of the best halls in the world,” he said, “ ... and this one is right up there with the absolute best of them.”
Indeed, the acoustics were the third performer in the evening, allowing the most subtle nuances to be heard throughout the sonatas and the encores. It’s amazing Bell had the energy left to break into Brahm’s “Hungarian Dances,” followed by the Massenet’s sublime “Meditation,” and the hummingbird trills of Sarasate’s whirling “Gypsy Airs” — all of which sent cheers and “bravos” ringing through the hall.
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