An Unnecessary Bach Recital from Joshua Bell

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

This is Joshua Bell’s first recording of any of Bach’s music. As you might imagine, the playing is expert, for the most part, and Bell happily uses a very light touch, particularly in the outer movements of the overly familiar concertos. The final movement of the A minor is a wonderful dance, played at a nice clip and with jollity, and the first movement of the E major follows suit. His quick tempos do not allow for much vibrato in the fast movements, but he gives us plenty in the slow movements, where Romanticism seems to take over from the Baroque. Bell is precise and clean and plays lovingly. However, I can find nothing special in his readings to push, say, Zukerman (RCA) for the Romanticist or Manze (Harmonia Mundi) for the Baroque “purist” out of the way. But the program really takes a bad turn after the concertos with a performance of the Chaconne.

Using Mendelssohn’s arrangement, in which a piano accompanies the violin to fill in some of the harmonic “blanks” (I have always seen it as an intrusion), violinist/arranger Julian Milone has added a small complement of strings to the solo violin line. It is perfectly awful, softening the work and cushioning it in a pillow. Near the end, before the uptake of the opening tune one last time, Bell plays a few bars of the music solo, as it should be played, and we realize what a horror the arrangement is. Why bother?

The beautiful Air from the third suite is handsomely played, but does the planet need another recording of it? The disc ends with Robert Schumann’s arrangement, re-arranged again by Milone for string accompaniment, of the third Partita’s Gavotte en Rondeau. It sounds mushy. Bell is a great violinist. This is an unnecessary CD, and the Chaconne is almost a crime. Can you imagine turning a work of such exquisite angularity and asceticism into what used to be referred to as “elevator music”?

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Zukerman (RCA), Manze (Harmonia Mundi)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Chaconne; Air; Gavotte en Rondeau
  • Joshua Bell (violin)
  • Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell

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