Poise and Musical Freshness: Joshua Bell & Symphonie espagnole

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s concert Saturday night displayed a many-colored palette of soloistic music-making textures from every player.

The true soloist of the evening was Joshua Bell in his presentation of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. There may not be a violinist alive with his versatility at the highest level.

Composed for the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, Edouard Lalo completed the Symphonie espagnole in the late 19th century, a time full of French interest in Spanish culture. Unlike Lalo’s Violin Concerto, the Symphonie espagnole is a work in five movements, thus suggesting more of the structure of a symphony. With both conductor and soloist sensitive to tempos, this interpretation of the Symphonie espagnole stands out for the element of clarity that emerged in the playing. This included the marvelous detailed solo work from Joshua Bell, as well as the orchestral lines that supported and developed ideas found in the solo part. The virtuosic writing that defines Lalo’s work was never lost in Bell’s hands, with each note clear and elegantly phrased. Bell is a gifted performer who commands both technical virtuosity and impeccable expression, such that the flourishes at the ends of some of the phrases contain the kind of inflections that resemble vocal phrasing. Bell makes the first movement as dramatic as it needs to be to suggest the sparkling opening of a concerto. The orchestra supported Bell well, with the woodwinds exhibiting particularly effective ensemble work; at the same time, the strings were rich and warm.

Victor De Sabata Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Gianandrea Noseda achieved a similar effect in the second movement, which continues in the hybrid concerto-symphony style, and in which Bell was tireless in exhibiting the demanding line. The third movement, the Intermezzo, deserves attention for its equally strong solo violin line, which culminates in cadenzas which Bell rendered with great conviction.

When it comes to the end of the Symphonie, the penultimate movement is notable for its solid expressiveness which, again, arises from the symphonic elements in this work. Bell brought out nuances in the score that are not always apparent in other performances, and which make a marked difference in the work. His grasp of structure allows him to give proper expression to the sometimes ornamental-writing which has the solo violin accompanying the orchestra. A thorough and captivating violinist, Bell is never ostentatious or overly dramatic in his execution of the notes. While some might label Bell as “ostentatious or overly dramatic”, due to his movement and fancy “bow art,” he is essentially just “icing” his playing, and it does not affect the superb quality with which he delivers the notes and phrasing. Within his controlled playing, he easily renders every note with outstanding precision. With his expert command of the score, Noseda gave a compelling reading of this familiar masterpiece, which brought the audience to its feet.

The second half of the evening, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, (after Goethe) in Three Character Pictures for Orchestra. It reminded me very much of the beginning of Liszt’s Les Preludes and of Smetana’s Moldau in the “Mondschein; Nymphenreigen” section.

Some consider this symphony to be Liszt’s masterpiece. It surely contains one of the most colorful motifs in the orchestral repertoire. In fact, each character in Goethe’s play is so vividly depicted that one might think of it as an opera without words.  Liszt (not just the night as a whole) truly did unfurl a kaleidoscopic array of chamber-music textures in which every player is a soloist. There are too many notable solos to name, but the Pittsburgh Symphony is fortunate to have such, although it’s cliché, gifted players.

Gianandrea Noseda gave an exhuberant, powerful performance, extracting from his Pittsburgh Symphony players matching prowess. He excells in this kind of repertoire, as he is especially gifted to conduct these romantic works that explore the full range of emotional writing as well as that of the orchestral capabilities

Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony is one of the most significant yet least appreciated orchestral works of the nineteenth century, and one of Liszt’s largest and greatest symphonic utterance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons