I just heard a very satisying performance of Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto by Joshua Bell, Louis Langree and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, the first of two presentations of this program, which began with Mozart's Symphony No. 1 and Schubert's Symphony No. 4. I understand that the Saturday performance is sold out, and deservedly so.
Joshua Bell is a definite favorite with New York audiences, so it is not surprising that both performances sold out and that they departed from their normal practice and sold tickets for the third tier, which they don't usually do for this series at Avery Fisher Hall.
What was so satisfying about Bell's rendition of the Brahms? It just all felt exactly right. The coming together of this violinist, this conductor, this orchestra, in this hall, with this audience, all seemed exactly the right combination to do justice to this concerto on this evening. It's hard to put it into words, but I had a feeling of something very special going on while they were playing. Bell's conception of the piece has grown and matured since his 1994 recording, and I think it is definitely time for him to record it again. Bell in his mid-40s is just a much more sophisticated, experienced musician than he was in his 20s. As fine as that recording is — and it is a superb performance, a real accomplishment for a young violinist – I think it is certainly time for a new one, to preserve and communicate his current thoughts on this masterful concerto. Bell has now played this concerto so many times, with so many different conductors and orchestras, that he has achieved the identification with this music that makes possible a very convincing personalized interpretation that works.
Brahms' Violin Concerto is a deeply considered work of the composer's maturity, composed in close collaboration with the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom it was written. By contrast, the first half of the program was devoted to what might be called "student works" of Mozart and Schubert. It is incredible to consider that Mozart was 8 years old when he wrote his first symphony, and of course there are suspicions that his father, Leopold Mozart, himself a composer, may have tidied up the score a bit. It is a brief work but already shows signs of the originality that were to mark the composer's adult work. There are some harmonic progressions that could only be by Mozart, although the influence of Christian Bach, whose work he encountered on an English tour about the time he wrote this, may also be discerned if you do some reverse-engineering and listen to some of Bach's music from around that time.
The Schubert symphony is also a student effort, written when the composer was still in his teens, and the heavy hand of Beethoven is felt throughout the piece, but there are also distinctive harmonic progressions and melodic lines that foretell the Schubert I heard just a few days ago when the orchestra performed the Great C Major Symphony with Osmo Vanska. Actually, the great leap forward in Schubert's symphonic writing came just after this 4th Symphony, as the 5th is virtually a repertory piece today. In the 5th, Schubert declares his independence and has truly original things to say. But the 4th is pleasant to hear, as it has the freshness of youthful discovery about it. Langree and the orchestra did a fine job throughout the concert, and made the early Mozart and Schubert works an enjoyable prelude to the main event.
(P.S., added Saturday morning: How could I forget to mention this? Joshua Bell long ago wrote his own cadenza for the first movement of the Concerto, joining a long tradition of virtuosi who have done so. He played his own cadenza for the 1994 recording and again last night. The cadenza does a great job of expanding on the various themes and harmonic progressions of the movement, and is a worthy addition to the tradition. Many soloists who lack compositional ambitions routinely play the Kreisler cadenza, but there are many, many alternatives available, among which Bell's should be accorded a high position.)