Some very successful musical collaborations have been built on shaky personal relationships. Gilbert and Sullivan disliked each other and rarely met. Renata Scotto often sang beautifully with Luciano Pavarotti, but excoriated him in her autobiography.
The team of violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk appears to be different. “Finding the right musical partner is like making best friends,” Bell said. “You make them throughout your life, you sometimes fall into them, but in the end you don’t have a lot of really, really great friends. You have a handful and Jeremy is one of mine.”
Denk concurs. “It’s like when you are talking with someone and you feel this kind-of instant sympathy or empathy.”
Classical musicians often are known to gush around interviewers but Denk and Bell have a track record to back up their mutual admiration society. Both attended Indiana University, but just as Denk entered the school in 1990, Bell had already graduated. The latter was on his way to a big career as a soloist and violin pin-up god.
But like two ships passing in the night, Bell and Denk kept tabs on each others’ careers. When they finally performed together – playing the Grieg Violin Sonata at the 2004 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. – sparks flew. They've been touring regularly ever since. This month they release "French Impressions," their first recording, which consists of violin sonatas by Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel.
In the WQXR Café, Bell and Denk played the blistering finale from Franck’s Sonata in A Major. Bell surmised that he's performed the work "at least 1,000 times," which isn’t entirely surprising. Franck wrote the piece as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave its premiere. Ysaÿe then taught Josef Gingold, who in turn taught Bell at Indiana (where Bell now holds a professorship himself).
The new recording also marks a turning point: Bell’s last release for Sony, “At Home with Friends,” was a smorgasbord of classical, pop, Latin jazz and film-music arrangements (Denk appeared on one track); Denk’s recent recordings have focused on knotty works by Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
The two artists decided to record "French Impressions" not in a traditional studio but at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ. “Recording is scary because you know it’s going to be down forever,” said Denk. “Especially for this music – it’s so much is about the sound and the color and the pallet of colors from both instruments. That’s very important for us to make sure we have the right sound.”
Tune in to WQXR to hear more performances of Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk on Jan. 10 at 8 pm.
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Elliott Forrest; Text: Brian Wise