Joshua Bell’s ‘Four Seasons’

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The New York Sun

Everyone and his brother has recorded Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” — meaning, of course, every violinist and his brother. You can no more skip “The Four Seasons” than you can the Mendelssohn Concerto. And now Joshua Bell, the famed American, age 40, has gone and put Vivaldi’s work on Sony.

The composer wrote this hit in 1723, and it comprises four little violin concertos, really. Each has three movements, and is intended to be “programmatic” — to represent a season. Do the concertos work on this level? Well, if you will them to, they do. But so it is with pretty much all program music.

Mr. Bell has recorded the work with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields — and you, as soloist, could ask for no better partner. The Academy has a way with Baroque and Classical music. They remain firmly within interpretive bounds. But they don’t forget sound and feeling.

And just the same can be said of the soloist, Mr. Bell.

We have here a top-drawer recording of “The Four Seasons.” The first concerto, “Spring,” is crisp, fresh, and delicious. It combines the “lyrical” and the “chordal,” the “horizontal” and the “vertical.” It is both grand and nimble — just as Vivaldi wants it to be.

And I cite a specific: Mr. Bell really knows how to enter a note, or phrase. He knows when not to announce himself bluntly — when to sort of creep in instead.

In the Largo of “Spring,” Mr. Bell uses pretty much the same tone he would with Schubert — just a little drier. And his concentration and sense of purpose should not be taken for granted. You can tell when a performer is wandering, mentally, and Mr. Bell does not.

Throughout the four concertos, the tempos are just — are right and natural. There is almost never a sense of too fast or too slow. It’s as though the tempos have been preordained.

And the playing, from both soloist and orchestra, is full of verve without succumbing to mania. A musical intelligence, a maturity, always governs this playing.

The “Summer” concerto in these hands often sounds squirmy and modern. It holds our attention, causing us to ask, “What new thing is this?” You could even call it spiky and Shostakovich-like — if you doubt it (and I wouldn’t blame you), listen for yourself.

In the “Autumn” concerto, we often hear a rustic element — enough to see colored leaves? Well, again, a certain programmatic willing goes on.

And I offer another small detail: A slow trill by Mr. Bell in the first movement is remarkable. Slow trills are underrated by performers, I believe: They can be very effective and sensuous.

Finally, the “Winter” concerto — which, not unlike “Summer,” is pervaded by edginess. A pleasing, arresting edginess. And how about the famous middle movement (which, like the middle movement of “Spring,” is marked Largo)? It is maybe — maybe — a speck fast. But Mr. Bell’s lyricism, over the Academy’s clockwork accompaniment, is endearing.

We get a filler on this album: Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, which Mr. Bell plays with the head of a Baroque performer and the heart of a Romantic. (I simplify.) I believe Tartini would warmly approve.

By the way, how long has it been since you listened to “The Four Seasons,” that hackneyed old thing? It is really a masterpiece — and Mr. Bell and the Academy remind us of that, which is high praise. And there are few recordings of the work as good as this one.

Sony has packaged it interestingly and attractively. There are four little postcard-type things, giving sonnets expressive of the seasons.

And there are, of course, photos of Mr. Bell, long presented as a matinée idol. One photo shows him sort of pouting at the camera, with his hair tousled (carefully, of course), his collar open, his tie loose, etc. I actually thought of the phrase “sex kitten” (as in Brigitte Bardot).

Look, I’m no foe of PR, and I understand the need to move product. But this is almost parodic. Isn’t a first-rate recording of “The Four Seasons” good enough? In any case, Sony has provided something for everybody.

The New York Sun

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