Bell's violin wizardry conjures up an earlier age

January 26, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The somewhat unusual program the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director David Zinman performed last night in Meyerhoff Hall was a response to the exigencies of recording. Zinman, the orchestra and violinist Joshua Bell are scheduled to record the violin concertos of Samuel Barber and William Walton and the "Baal Shem" of Ernest Bloch for Decca-London at the end of this week.

An orchestra's time is very expensive; that is why subscription concerts must sometimes double as rehearsals for recording sessions and why this week's program consists entirely of those three pieces. That is not to say that the BSO audience has been shortchanged. Any opportunity to hear Bell play is to be treasured, and all the more so when one has the chance to hear him play three times on a single program.

Bell is now such a familiar figure in the world's concert halls that it comes as a shock to realize that he is not yet 29. As last night's performances demonstrated, he remains the most aristocratic violinist of his generation. His sound is unfailingly beautiful, and he is unwilling to sacrifice its quality in order to play to the gallery; his playing eschews sentimentality for the expression of genuine sentiment; and he has a coherent architectural grasp of nearly everything he plays.

To hear this violinist perform Bloch's "Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Hasidic Life" was to feel that the clock has been turned back. The young violinist must have listened carefully to his great teacher, Josef Gingold, and he must be something of a throwback himself to an earlier age. For he has a mastery of portamento -- the art of sliding from one pitch to another for expressive effect -- like almost no one else in his generation. The violinist's ability to conjure up the past created a sound world very much like the visual one of Marc Chagall.

In the Bloch and in the Barber and Walton concertos that followed, Zinman and the orchestra provided fervently passionate accompaniments. In the Barber piece, Bell demonstrated his trademark effortless lyricism. Although he did not quite match the almost vulgar brilliance some players summon for the musically inferior finale, the rapture and sense of yearning he conveyed in the first two movements could not have been bettered.

The Walton Concerto certainly could not be faulted: There was brooding intensity, bravura passages dispatched with panache and an unfaltering focus on Walton's bittersweet romanticism.

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