Zesty Piano and Luxuriant Strings: Sonatas by a Well-Matched Pair

02.10.09
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

Eugène Ysaÿe, the Belgian violinist and composer who died in 1931, was nicknamed "the king" of his instrument. He composed six solo sonatas as a tribute to Bach, filtering the Baroque genre through a late Romantic prism.

Before a superb performance of Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2 in A minor at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday afternoon, the violinist Joshua Bell spoke from the stage about Ysaÿe, whom he called "one of the greatest violinists" ever. Ysaÿe taught Josef Gingold, Mr. Bell's former teacher.

Ysaÿe wrote the six sonatas after hearing the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti perform Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In the first movement of Ysaÿe's second sonata (dedicated to the French violinist Jacques Thibaud) fragments of Bach's Partita in E intertwine with echoes of the "Dies Irae" chant, a motif that recurs in later movements.

Mr. Bell played the colorful opening movement (titled "Obsession") with vigorous poise and the "Dies Irae" theme in the somber "Malinconia" with haunting intensity. His voluminous tone and powerful technique vividly illuminated the intricacies of the virtuoso finale.

The sonata was included in a stellar recital (part of the Great Performers series) that Mr. Bell played with the excellent pianist Jeremy Denk. The program also included Franck's Violin Sonata in A, which the composer wrote as a wedding gift for Ysaÿe, who gave the work its premiere.

These two musicians are an ideally matched duo, with Mr. Denk's fiery playing complementing Mr. Bell's luxuriant singing tone. Mr. Denk played the enigmatic opening to the first movement of the Franck with gentle insistence. The dialogue in the charming final movement traversed varying degrees of jovial familiarity and passionate exuberance with gripping intensity.

The program opened with Janacek's earthy Sonata for Violin and Piano, which highlights the composer's fascination with Czech folk music. (He once said, "The whole life of man is in folk music.") Mr. Denk and Mr. Bell offered a richly hued performance, with the pianist imbuing the rhythmically vibrant sections with zesty vigor.

The first half of the concert also included a passionate rendition of Brahms's Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor in which Mr. Bell's soaring tone was displayed to splendid effect.

After a rapturous ovation from the packed house at the end of the program, the musicians offered a sweet-toned rendition of Massenet's "Meditation" from "Thaïs" as an encore.