PROVO — It’s a no-brainer.
Joshua Bell plus a 304-year-old Stradivarius violin equals a mesmerizing display of artistry. But it’s not until the violin virtuoso is standing before you, digging deep into each string and leaning into every note that you learn it’s not just mesmerizing — it’s hypnotizing.
The violinist was enthusiastically welcomed to Brigham Young University’s de Jong Concert Hall stage and had his nearly sold-out audience hanging on every note Thursday night.
Because with Bell, every note carries weight, every note counts and every note sings. His violin is an unwavering voice.
During his two-hour recital with the equally impressive pianist, Alessio Bax, Bell passionately performed three sonatas — each about 20 minutes long — and somehow had the energy to make his three shorter encore pieces soar.
Bell opened his recital with an energetic rendition of Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major. About halfway through the first movement, after his fingers vigorously flew through a fast sequence of notes, Bell took advantage of a brief pause in the piece to pluck a loose hair from his violin bow. Before entering the work’s second movement, the violinist could be seen removing yet another loose hair — a visible sign of heartfelt playing.
True to sonata form, a lush, slower middle movement followed and offered a nice contrast between the lightning quick first and third movements. Bell swayed with every note, at times even lifting a foot off the ground as his fingers romantically slid into a high note. The violinist held onto each note with a sense of longing, allowing each note to resonate throughout the concert hall.
After the standard pause between movements, Bell immediately picked up the tempo as his fingers ran up and down the fingerboard, hair flopping with each fervent accent. It was a wild ending met with even wilder applause.
Especially impressive about the performance of this piece — and all of the other pieces — was the clarity and tone of Bell’s violin. It didn't matter when the violinist's flourish of notes seemed to miraculously produce faster than the speed of his agile fingers, or when he slowed down for his softer, more delicate sounds: Bell left no note behind. He delivered every phrase, fast and slow, with a carefree ease akin to gliding across a skating rink.
Also striking was the chemistry between Bell and his pianist, Italian concert pianist Bax. Although Bell was center stage, each instrument was equally important and had a chance to shine. Most of the pieces on the program utilized call-and-response techniques, creating an entertaining dance between violin and piano.
Bell shifted into a darker tone with his performance of Sonata No. 3 in C Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 45 by Edvard Grieg — the Norwegian composer of the ominous “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”
Throughout the piece, Bell’s face was just as expressive as his singing violin. His face lowered, eyes brooding as he dug into the deeper strings, and then his head tilted back, a visible release of tension as his fingers landed on the more delicate notes.
Following a short intermission, Bell dived into Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78, putting character and life into each note. The piece was the last one listed in the program, so it was a relief to the audience when Bell announced he would be performing three encore numbers.
The encore pieces were familiar to those in attendance, as each one Bell announced was met with audible gasps. Kicking off the encore set was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 — a spirited number that received one of the loudest applauses of the evening. Following was Jules Massenet’s sublime “Meditation” and then the whirling “Gypsy Airs” by Pablo de Sarasate that had audience members leaping out of their seats upon its finish.
While Bell had a music stand with sheet music near his side, he never seemed to need it. Each piece saw him deeply focused and deeply connected to his instrument as if he were in a trance. The quiet atmosphere of the concert hall contributed to the reverence of the performance, allowing for the subtlest of nuances to be heard.
As the concert came to a close, Bell and his pianist took three bows for awed and appreciative audience members who, although perhaps not entirely believing what they had just heard, would certainly not be forgetting the performance any time soon.