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Music Review

At his best, Joshua Bell shows off Tartini, Beethoven, Stravinsky

Joshua Bell in a Celebrity Series of Boston recital with pianist Sam Haywood at Symphony Hall. Robert Torres

Composers often take inspiration from individual performers. In that category, Giuseppe Tartini had Ludwig van Beethoven beat: Beethoven based his Opus 96 Sonata around the talents of French violinist Pierre Rode, but Tartini was prompted by the devil himself, who (as the story goes) appeared to him in a dream, resulting in the G minor “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Both pieces featured on Sunday’s Celebrity Series recital by another consummate performer, violinist Joshua Bell.

Bell has always been a musician uncannily at home in performance, his technique and intellect geared toward onstage musical charisma. The Tartini was a showcase for such. Over pearly, discreet accompaniment by pianist Sam Haywood (whose playing was, throughout the concert, pearly and discreet), Bell unleashed subtle enhancements: a little additional space milked out of rests, a little more flintiness in his spiccato bowing, a little extra flourish to snapped rhythms, a little increased shimmer in the trills. The most diabolical frippery had the most sincere fervor.


The Beethoven revealed other dimensions. Where Bell — the onetime prodigy of plush old-school virtuosity — might once have played it in an unabashedly Romantic style, Sunday’s performance was all about refinement and elegance. The first movement found Bell and Haywood seeing just how delicately they could alight on phrases; the slow movement was suffused with a soft glow, Bell’s ever-even bowing and incandescent tone on controlled display. What glimpses there were of gruffness were rendered with elegant restraint, the scherzo’s rough clothes re-imagined with fine tailoring, the final variations — even where Beethoven drops any pretense of good manners and just slashes at the theme — showing far more grace than grit.

Igor Stravinsky’s Divertimento, arranged from his ballet “The Fairy’s Kiss” — itself arranged from melodies of Tchaikovsky — triangulated 19th-century ardor, modernist precision, and a Kreislerian golden age of violinistic prestidigitation, a triple match for Bell’s style. Stravinsky seeded the score with the sorts of amplifications Bell had already deployed in the Tartini: the lyricism that much warmer, the intricacies that much more intricate, the rustic fiddling that much more brash and angular. (Haywood, too, had the opportunity to indulge in more brazen percussiveness.) The result was some serious, higher-order showing off.


A pair of encores — Tchaikovsky’s “Melodie” (Op. 42, No. 3) and Henryk Wieniawski’s “Polonaise Brillante” — exemplified the throwback virtuosity at the core of Bell’s playing. Where the first was a polished piece of musical jewelry, the second was a pure dose of Bell’s theatrical skill: The dramatic intensity with which he threw himself into each technical maneuver made every firework its own little soliloquy. The play’s the thing — but so, in Bell’s case, is the player.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.