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Music Review

With Bell’s aplomb, the bolder the music the better

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2011

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At Friday night’s Celebrity Series recital by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood, the bolder the musical outline, the better it got. Those pieces dependent on high-risk, high-reward splashes of contrast — the bulk of the evening, fortunately — were given consummate renditions.

Bell has always exemplified old-school Romantic virtues, technically accomplished and emotionally flamboyant. If anything, his technique has only gotten better; his bowing, in particular, was a paragon, exceptionally controlled across a range of styles. The flamboyance, though, painted him into a bit of a corner in Johannes Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 100. The music’s architecture was lost amid a surfeit of amplified, moment-to-moment detail: lyric turns sighing with operatic vibrato, slashing accents, diaphanous softness. It was pervasively lovely but curiously frictionless overall, Brahms’s delicately balanced tension and repose snowed under by the unvaried dramatic density.

But in the comparatively quirkier Fantasy in C Major by Franz Schubert, the same verve produced a far more convincing whole. It was not only that the variation form of the piece encouraged longer trajectories, but the confidence with which Bell and Haywood launched each new block of music: dropping immediately into an exact, deftly realized texture — from a breathless whisper to a heady buzz of finger-busting passagework — then sustaining it with keen authority. Schubert’s garrulous length can be a tricky sell, but this performance sold it, earning the finale’s expansive parade of climaxes.

Edvard Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 13, similarly matched Bell’s style. Like Brahms, Grieg capitalized on the violin’s capacity for singing lines — in Grieg’s case, emotive lyricism drawn from Norwegian folk styles. But, unlike Brahms’s eloquent equivocations, Grieg predicates his structure on sharp contrasts of range, tempo, and volume; Bell and Haywood navigated each shift with aplomb, threading the varied sections together with complementary energy.

Bell and Haywood finished off the concert with character pieces, leveraging their penchant for immediacy into elegant sketches. The “Romance’’ of Jean Sibelius and an arrangement of Frédéric Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C-sharp minor charmingly trafficked in sustained gossamer restraint. At the other end was Henryk Wieniawski’s “Polonaise Brillante,’’ an unapologetic virtuoso showpiece dispatched with unapologetic virtuosity, a concentrated dose of panache and precision. On this concert, resolute polish carried the day.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

JOSHUA BELL, violin

With San Haywood, piano

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Symphony Hall, Friday night