Joshua Bell Discusses French Chamber Works

Ask Joshua Bell about Franck’s violin sonata in a major—recorded on his new CD of French chamber works—and the superstar violinist declares: ‘I own it!’

Violinist Joshua Bell

Violinist Joshua Bell

Violinist Joshua Bell celebrated Thanksgiving 2010 in New York with family. The following day, he started recording tracks for his latest CD. “If it sounds like I’m kind of full . . . ,” the violinist jokes during a phone interview. “The tryptophan in turkey that makes you kind of logy—I hope you can’t detect it in the recording.”

Bell needn’t worry. Recording the sonatas of the French composers Ravel, Franck, and Saint-Saëns, Bell played with all the intensity and energy typical of his live performances and past CDs alike, say people who attended the sessions. “He was working up a sweat,” says Steven Epstein, the recording’s producer.

French Impressions, to be released January 10 by Sony Masterworks, is the first sonata recording in 15 years from Bell, whose recent discs have featured mostly Baroque music, film scores, show tunes, crossover arrangements, and works by living composers. In French Impressions, Bell, with pianist Jeremy Denk, loops back to traditional chamber repertoire, recording three big sonatas suited to solo recitals at Wigmore or Carnegie. “Because I’ve done so many other kinds of recordings, it certainly was meaningful to me to finally do these,” the violinist says.

The sonata recording comes to fruition following performances of all three works on Bell’s numerous recital tours with Denk since 2004. “We really wanted to document something of our collaboration that we’ve had for many years,” says the 44-year-old Bell, who describes Denk as “very thoughtful, very intellectual. It comes out in his playing.” Denk “is the kind of musician I like to surround myself with.”

Although the world is awash in recordings of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major (Bell himself recorded it in 1989 with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet for the Decca label), the violinist says that after years of performing the work onstage, he was ready to record it again.

The four-movement piece is characterized by the delicate, lyrical quality of the opening Allegretto moderato and the equally pastoral “Ben moderato recitative fantasia” of the third movement. The piece carries a larger sentimental value for Bell, who initially learned it a young teen soon after he began studying with Josef Gingold in Bloomington, Indiana.

“Every note of that piece brings back a special memory of my teacher,” Bell says. “It’s a piece that people continue to love, and there’s so much room for individual expression in it. It’s one of those pieces that everyone thinks is their own. Everyone owns that piece and makes it something very different.

“I feel I own it.”

Plenty of listeners disparage the Franck and the high drama packed into its four movements as corny, a notion that, Bell says, “drives me up the wall.” The key to interpreting and performing the work, he says, is managing the sonata’s many “goose-bump moments” and “figuring out the phrasing to the harmonies that you think are most meaningful, because you can overdo it and then lose sense of the line and the bigger picture.”

Interestingly, the other two sonatas on French Impressions are sometimes put down as well. Some have deemed the jazz- and blues-inspired slow movement of Ravel’s Sonata for violin and piano as vulgar. For his part, Bell says, he keeps his interpretation of the movement understated. “The Ravel is jazz and there’s plenty of glissandi and slides in the piece, but there’s also a coolness to it that’s important, a cool jazz that shouldn’t be over-schmaltzed,” says Bell, who has previously recorded an album of Gershwin and worked with jazz artists Chris Botti and Branford Marsalis.

Regardless of the heavy jazz overtones of the sonata, “it’s still Ravel,” he says. “It’s not just a jazz piece. That slow movement is an incredible masterpiece with multiple keys at the same time on top of each other, which is extraordinary.”

Bell says his favorite part of the Ravel is the opening movement, largely because of its many changes of color. “The use of vibrato in a piece like that is key,” he says. “It’s about how you paint the picture with vibrato and variations of it, from no vibrato to warm vibrato. All the subtle color changes all happen in the left hand.”

Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75, too, is underrated in Bell’s view. He cites the excitement at the end of the final movement and adds that of all the pieces he has performed publicly, that movement elicits the most visceral audience reaction. “It makes me happy when I perform this and people come back and say, ‘I actually loved it and you convinced me,’ ” he says.

The new CD sharply contrasts with Bell’s most recent disc, At Home with Friends, which includes 16 tracks of mostly jazz, pop, and show tunes featuring such collaborators as pianist Marvin Hamlisch and vocalists Kristin Chenoweth and Regina Spektor.

But Bell had no difficulty switching gears to record the sonata album, says Epstein, who produced At Home with Friends and some of Bell’s other discs. “He’s proved to be a chameleon, doing different styles,” Epstein says.

Pianist Denk, who has recorded John Corigliano’s Sonata for violin and piano with Bell, adds that “the French sonatas required a different sense of refinement, of harmony and nuances—it’s a whole world unto itself.”

Bell and Denk recorded French Impressions in the 300-seat auditorium of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. Even though the pair had performed all three sonatas countless times, their playing during the recording sessions was anything but rote, says Sony Masterworks executive David Lai, who attended the sessions. “They were still analyzing everything and listening and rediscovering things,” Lai says. “They were asking each other, ‘What were you thinking there? Where were you starting the crescendo?’

“They were still making discoveries even though they’ve played these pieces a lot.”

Bell adds that recording the sonatas was harder than making At Home with Friends, on which no track exceeds five minutes in length. “Recording bigger pieces, I find it much more difficult,” he says. “You can’t approach it exactly like a performance, since you’re repeating things over and over. You want it to be perfect and to capture every phrase exactly as you’d ideally want it. You’ll never do that in a performance.

“But at the same time, when you get worried about every note being exactly the way you envision it, you lose the sense of in-the-moment spontaneity and the overall picture. I’ve made the mistake in the past of dwelling on small things too much. I’m learning, after years of recording, how to balance those two things.”

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