It was bone-chillingly cold outside the Music Center at Strathmore Wednesday evening. Inside, global warming was alive and well, amply generated by the Romantic passion and technical prowess of violinist Joshua Bell.
Accompanied by pianist Jeremy Denk, Mr. Bell - here under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society - unveiled a recital program rich in diversity and imagination, featuring works by Leos Janacek, Johannes Brahms, Eugene Ysaye and Cesar Franck.
The recital opened with Janacek’s quirky, inspired and sometimes astringent Sonata for Violin and Piano. Alternately twitchy and deeply personal, the sonata is technically and interpretatively challenging. Mr. Bell was more than up to the task, connecting with the composer’s iconoclasm and matching it with skill and feeling.
In the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108, Mr. Bell dealt with a more conventionally Romantic vehicle that is, however, equally challenging. His performance was notable for its superb articulation and phrasing of Brahms’ long melodic lines - the mark of a true instrumental craftsman.
After the intermission, Mr. Bell reappeared, sans accompanist, to perform Ysaye’s odd and interesting Sonata in A Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 27, No. 2. A native of Belgium, Ysaye was a brilliant violinist, and his demanding solo compositions attest to this.
Ysaye’s Sonata in A is less a flashy virtuoso piece than it is an interesting amalgam of four contrasting studies on themes by Johann Sebastian Bach, alternating with snatches of the ancient “Dies Irae” chant. Mr. Bell emphasized the puckish humor in the piece - a wise choice in a program largely consisting of pretty serious stuff.
The recital concluded as Mr. Denk reappeared to accompany Mr. Bell in one of the finest performances of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major I’ve ever heard. Franck composed the Sonata for Mr. Ysaye, his fellow countryman. The work is noteworthy for the intricate, highly chromatic conversations between both instruments, giving the pianist many opportunities to shine - which Mr. Denk most certainly did.
The performers melded into a single unit in this near-flawless performance, marrying searing passion to a meticulous, Baroque precision. The Franck alone was worth the price of admission, as amply demonstrated by the nearly full house. It’s hard to imagine that barely two years ago, most passers-by at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station ignored Mr. Bell’s artistry when he played there incognito in a stunt heard round the world.
The artists concluded their program with an encore, an equally sensitive rendition of the beloved “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s opera “Thais.” Bravo.
WHAT: “A Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare
WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 8.
TICKETS: $34 to 55
WEB SITE: www.folger.edu/theatre
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS