At first you might wonder what Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk are doing playing an all-French recital together. Both of these American artists have very eclectic tastes though neither is particularly known as a Francophile. But in selecting three significant French sonatas – by Saint-Saëns, Franck and Ravel – the two artists deliver performances of great elegance, poise and virtuosity.
Bell, 44, and Denk, 41, first shared the stage at the 2004 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, and have been touring annually since. There's a bit of yin and yang involved in their chemistry. While Bell’s playing is lyrical and effusive in the manner of Fritz Kreisler, Denk is known as a somewhat cerebral stylist given to unpacking the epic works of Bach and late Beethoven as well as contemporary music.
Here Bell and Denk prove to be formidable allies starting with Saint-Saëns’s Violin Sonata No. 1. Bell tosses off the most convoluted of passages of the huge opening movement with complete control and dexterity, while making the blazing moto pertetuo of the finale seem like child’s play. Similarly, the ultra-Romantic Franck Sonata in A Major – a work Bell recorded in 1989 with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet – is given a grand treatment, with the two artists lunging into its big, Beethovenian gestures [watch the duo perform the work's finale in their WQXR Café Concert below].
By contrast, the ironic and wistful Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano is given a more understated, yet colorful performance, with the blues-inspired slow movement played more like cool jazz, the glissandos kept to a tasteful minimum.
Tune in to WQXR Tuesday night at 8 pm for an hour-long performance special with Bell and Denk hosted by Elliott Forrest.
Joshua Bell, violin; Jeremy Denk, piano
Available at Arkivmusic.com