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Carolina Performing Arts offered a stellar recital by Joshua Bell, violin, and Peter Dugan, piano. Bell probably needs no introduction: he is one of the leading violinists in the world, having performed around the globe as soloist and with orchestra. He is also, very notably, the music director of the world-renowned Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London. Dugan has performed widely as soloist and chamber musician around the United States and abroad, and may be familiar to readers as the host of the NPR program From the Top. The two artists previously came together last year for the pandemic-inspired PBS program At Home with Music, which was also released as a live album on Sony Classical.
Their program consisted of works by Beethoven, Bloch, and Brahms (a variant of the Three B's, one might say). Three encore-style pieces followed and could as well have been considered part of the concert proper. Throughout, the performance was the epitome of music making.
Beethoven's Sonata in A, Op. 12, No. 2, was first. This rather short sonata is an absolute delight, and this ideal chamber duo projected all of that. The beginning was flawlessly balanced in light tone between the piano and the chordal violin accompaniment. The rhythm, as everywhere else in the concert, was precise. The very brief passages in the minor had fine color, and the repeat of the exposition was more than welcome. In the brief development too, the parts were ideally balanced, and the rapid 16th note passages were beautifully shaped and articulated. Throughout, the 2-note motive was perfectly phrased. This clarity and consistency in the shaping and rhythm of leading motives was another feature heard throughout the concert.
The second movement was a feast of lyricism. The piano opening had a lovely full, thoughtful tone. The shift in sound to the F major section was very fine and the long violin line, beautifully carried, had just a little, tasteful vibrato. The return was lovely and gentle, delicate. The third movement began in a light and peaceful mood, making one think of a quiet dance – or later, a livelier one. There were full dynamic contrasts, ideally matched articulation, and beautifully sustained moments of melody. Rising runs, clean and delightful, led to an effervescent ending.
The next work was by Ernst Bloch (1880-1959). Bloch was a leading musician in his time and left a significant legacy. Born in Geneva of Jewish parents, after studies in Germany he emigrated to the U.S. and became a citizen. He taught composition at a number of American institutions, where one of his students was the great American composer Roger Sessions.
The program notes to this concert quote Bloch as saying, "I aspire to write Jewish music, not for the sake of self-advertisement, but because I am sure that this is the only way I can produce music of vitality and significance." One of Bloch's most famous works, Jewish or otherwise, is Ba'al Shem. It is named for the 18th century founder of the Hasidic movement in Poland, a movement which remains important in Judaism today. The middle movement, "Nigun" (neeGOON, which means melody) is often played on its own, as it was in this concert.
The piano introduction immediately captured a deep and thoughtful quality. Though reduced from large orchestra, the piano captured the whole sense of that. One was immediately absorbed by the spirituality of the piece. The violin, upon entering, communicated that too, seeming to plaintively, and then passionately address God. The entire 7-minute work unfolded like a single heartfelt phrase. While there is brilliance in some of the violin writing, every phrase was devoted to expressing content and meaning. Technical brilliance was simply a byproduct. The dying down of the energy brought the haunting ending. With its intensity and immediacy of song and expression, this piece was in some ways the high point of the concert.
The concluding work of the announced program was the magnificent Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78. The beginning was very gently lyrical. Here again, the short motive was beautifully phrased and articulated. The 2nd theme was a lovely long-spun line. There was a subtle turn to the darker tremolo figure, then a sliding into the lighter, dance-like following section. The rich piano tone of Brahms balanced perfectly, always allowing the violin to predominate where needed. In the development, the rushing figures were highly dramatic, and then gave way to the very meditative transition to the return. The ending was dramatic and spirited.
The second movement had a beautiful, lush piano beginning, with a pleading violin figure. When the minor-mode chords entered with rhythmic punctuations, they continued like a single long phrase. It was magically soft in the rising 2-note piano figures before the return. The ending was reflective and again so very soft, with echoes of nature, a favorite Brahms sound, in the beautiful ending phrases.
The third movement is once again lyrical, beginning with a distinct relation to the opening of the first movement, now transformed into a sadly gentle character. There came beautiful, perfect light articulation in the 2nd theme. The slide back into the return of the main theme, after a fine climax, was beautiful. The shift back to the major near the end was almost unbearably wistful and led to an utterly ethereal cadence, played with the most beautiful tonal control.
The splendid concert could have ended there. But after so much concentration, listeners could certainly appreciate lighter music making. The following three pieces also gave Bell opportunity to unabashedly display his impressive technique. The first was the "Slavonic Fantasie" of Fritz Kreisler, the extremely famous violin virtuoso. It was based on melodies of Dvořák (think of the Slavonic Dances). A connection pointed out by Bell was that Dvořák was a protégé of Brahms, whose music we had just heard. There was a somewhat sentimental long melody, diaphanous short figures in the piano, and then a lively, very Slavic theme with syncopations in the piano. More melody and dance followed, leading to an energetic, upbeat ending. Brilliant and melodious fun, performed with complete aplomb.
The most substantial encore was the second. Bell himself arranged Chopin's Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, for violin. The exquisite piano piece was equally so in the rendering heard here, and deserves to be in the violin repertory. It was played with long expressive violin melody and wonderful legato in the piano, simply a lyrical expression to bask in. The climactic change to C-flat was treated with full resonance, as highly expressive. The following repeat came in a gorgeous pp, including lines in the very high range added in the arrangement and completely suitable to the cantabile character. The ending was wonderfully meditative.
The "Scherzo tarantelle" by Henryk Wieniawski ended the performance. Unsurprisingly, it was technically brilliant, with double stops and high speeds. There was also a sentimental theme which received soft but showy ornamentation from the violin. After another full melody, the piece ended with the expected virtuoso flair.
The camerawork was excellent, moving dynamically between the two performers, mirroring how someone sitting in the audience might be watching. The sound was less good, seeming rather day and sometimes dampening the violin's resonance. There were descriptive captions to the music from time to time, which sometimes enhanced the content, at other times almost misled the listener. The device could be helpful but may need to be thought through more carefully.
The magnificent music making was enjoyed by hundreds of people in the U.S. and some abroad as well. That the streaming medium could bring this artistic experience to so many listeners in so many places, recommends it to remain a permanent part of our musical lives.