Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 2, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Bell & Alessio Bax

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 31, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Bell & Bax
Only a handful of classical superstars can attract arena-size audiences, and violinist Joshua Bell is one of them. This may explain why he appeared with rising Italian-American pianist Alessio Bax in the Bushnell’s Broadway-size Mortensen Hall, rather than in its smaller Belding Theater. But this larger-than-life duo made the bigger hall’s acoustics sound surprisingly intimate.

Their concert opened with a dazzling account of Schubert’s lively 1826 Rondo Brillante in B minor. Bell shaded his tone from silken in the quiet Andante introduction to almost rough-hewn in the following dancelike Allegro. Bax echoed Bell’s every tonal shift, right through the 15-minute piece’s closing mad dash.

Next came a mercurial performance of Cesar Franck’s 1888 Sonata in A Major. The duo captured the varying moods of this 28-minute masterpiece’s four movements with unerring accuracy, from a radiant opening Allegretto, a turbulent Allegro, a lyrical Recitativo-Fantasia, to a jubilant closing Allegretto.

Intermission was followed by a bracing rendition of Bach’s 1723 fourth violin sonata. Here Bell produced a lighter tone appropriate to the Baroque period of the work’s origin. An affecting Siciliano preceded a brisk Allegro, a lush Adagio, and an intricately fugal closing Allegro, voiced with passion and precision by both players. 

The final work was Ernest Bloch’s 1923 suite “Baal Shem,” subtitled “Three Pictures of Hassidic Life.” In spoken introductory comments, Bell translated the titles of its three movements as “Contrition” (Vidui), “Improvisation” (Nigun), and “Celebration” (Simchas Torah). The duo played this rhapsodic work with drama and finesse, Bell bringing opulent intensity to the sinuous Nigun. 

A standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience brought the musicians back on stage for two encores. Exuding the same boyish and self-effacing charm as when he launched his career as a teenager over 30 years ago, Bell introduced them by identifying legendary Belgian violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye (for whom Franck wrote his sonata and who taught Bell’s teacher Josef Gingold) as the inspiration for this program. 

The duo brought youthful brio to Wieniawski’s showpiece “Scherzo-Tarantella” (also written for Ysaye) and touching tenderness to Bell’s own arrangement of Chopin’s lovely E-flat-Major Nocturne, Opus 9.