The Classical Collection proves that violinist Joshua Bell is only now entering his prime; the Baltic Chamber Orchestra serves up a grim and underwhelming disc.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Joshua Bell’s fiftieth birthday falls in December and next year marks twenty years since his first album for Sony Classical. Both milestones are commemorated with the release of a 14-disc box set called The Classical Collection, a compilation of almost all of Bell’s non-crossover releases for the label (only a collaboration with Edgar Meyer is missing).
Overall, this set is a reminder of what makes Bell such a dynamic and persuasive advocate for the solo violin repertoire. His technique, of course, shines: the easy virtuosity, the honey-toned lyricism is all there. But, more than that, the musicianship and musical intelligence behind those skills shines, especially in the concerto repertoire on tap here.
Bell’s takes on the three big Romantic warhorses – the concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky – are as brilliant and straightforward as Heifetz and Milstein made them out to be. The risks he takes in them (like supplying his own cadenzas to the first two) add an air of freshness to the proceedings. Above all, Bell seems to be subtly reminding that, given the right sort of advocacy, these pieces can still speak meaningfully on their own merits: they don’t necessarily require the sometimes-willful distortions Anne-Sophie Mutter brings to them or the histrionics of a Patricia Kopatchinskaja in order to succeed.
A similar directness marks the unabashedly big-boned readings of Baroque favorites included here (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and the two Bach solo concertos): the playing – both Bell’s and the accompanying Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (ASMF) – is always pert and vigorous, never fussy, and infused with rhythmic energy.
Bell’s advocacy for new and recent music is also well documented in this set, with strong performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, Nicholas Maw’s Violin Concerto, and John Corigliano’s The Red Violin Concerto on order. A fervent reading of Carl Goldmark’s Concerto can’t quite overcome some of the piece’s shortcomings (meandering passagework and a reliance on lyrical melodies over musical drama), but it is brilliantly played.
Bell’s recorded chamber music partnerships with Jeremy Denk (five pieces spread across three discs, covering music by Corigliano, Saint-Saens, Franck, Ravel, and Brahms) all shine. Bell’s tendency towards portamento can get to be a bit much (in the Franck, especially), but if that issue doesn’t bother you there’s nothing else to complain of in terms of interpretation, tempo choices, or, for that matter, the repertoire.
The set’s only real uneven moments crop up in the arrangements of Gershwin and Bernstein by William David Brohn, Jonathan Tunick, and Corigliano, which take up fully half of those albums, as well as a frustrating orchestration (by Julian Milone) of Mendelssohn’s (unnecessary) adaptation of Bach’s D-minor Chaconne on the all-Bach disc. The Brohn, Tunick, and Corigliano settings suggest no hint of what make Bernstein and Gershwin songs so winning and vital to begin with: here, they’re twisted and contrived to fit into a set of musical straightjackets. And the Milone reduces one of the transcendent works in the canon to the level of elevator music.
Otherwise, The Classical Collection, which is filled out by two discs dedicated to transcriptions of songs, arias, instrumental pieces, and one of the ASMF playing a pair of Beethoven symphonies (nos. 4 & 7), is an appealing and winning box, a testament to Bell’s considerable ambitions and abilities. Perhaps the best conclusion to draw from it is that he’s only now entering his prime.
Here’s a thoughtful, if somewhat grim and underwhelming, disc (from Rubicon) consisting of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, op. 110a and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. These two war-inspired pieces aren’t a particularly surprising pairing: both draw on the physical destruction of Germany during World War 2, though they come at that source from very different angles. These performances by the Baltic Chamber Orchestra (BCO) and conductor Emmanuel Leducq-Barome are earnest and very well played. But they don’t always dig deeply enough.
For instance, in the Shostakovich, everything’s articulated well and with striking unanimity across the ensemble. All of the music’s crunchy dissonances speak, especially in the fast movements. At the same time, tempos – particularly in those movements – aren’t particularly lively. And, for all the sheen of the playing, this isn’t a terribly affecting or terrifying account of the piece.
Part of the problem surely owes to expanding what is one of the most harrowing scores in quartet literature to a string orchestra. The intensity of focus between just four players that you encounter in the best performances (and recordings) of the original version is in this adaptation sacrificed for greater sonic weight and volume. Sometimes that’s not a problem (Shostakovich, himself, thought highly of this string orchestra arrangement, after all).
But here it is. The ensemble’s playing is, generally, too clean and finessed. The jarring contrasts of themes and motives, from the woozy waltz in the second movement to the hammering knocking in the fourth, lack menace and delirium. They pass by matter-of-factly. As a rule, there’s little sense of contrast – or, personality, present in the contrasts – between the music’s varied materials.
Brisker tempos might have helped energize the group’s playing. The fourth movement clocks in more than two minutes slower than the Emerson Quartet’s acclaimed (and wild) 1998 recording; the finale’s nearly a minute longer than that benchmark, too. Ultimately, this is a reading that offers plenty of technically brilliant playing and moments of touching pathos (the cello solo in the fourth movement is gorgeously rendered). But interpretively it lacks urgency and bite.
The BCO’s account of Strauss’s Metamorphosen is better. Its slow sections are, like in the Shostakovich, broadly so. But such an approach doesn’t do damage to the music’s character or structure. Rather, it has the tendency (at the beginning, at least) to emphasize the nostalgic warmth of Strauss’s writing. Only at the start of the recapitulation do things feel a bit forced, tempo-wise.
Otherwise, some dense textures at big climaxes notwithstanding, this is a fluent, cogent reading of a piece whose many strands can easily come apart. Here they don’t.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.