As fate had it, the violinists Joshua Bell and Anne-Sophie Mutter gave recitals in New York on consecutive January nights. As fate has also had it, they are about the same age (Bell is thirty-two, Mutter thirty-six), they were famous as teenagers, and they have large and enthusiastic followings. They seem destined to be compared, or at least jointly discussed.

For most of their careers, Mutter has had the greater reputation. A German, she was taken up by the late conductor Herbert von Karajan, who engaged her at the Salzburg Festival when she was thirteen. Bell is a Hoosier, who grew up in Bloomington and studied with Josef Gingold, the late, well-loved violinist and pedagogue. Bell made his initial splash when he played with the Philadelphia Orchestra at fourteen. If Mutter was ever the more mature and impressive violinist, Bell has more than caught up. In a small crowd of excellent violinists under forty, Bell, with every passing year, stands out—although Mutter is hardly back in the shadows.

Bell gave his recital at Alice Tully Hall, with the pianist Frederic Chiu, an American of Chinese parentage who has made his mark with a recording of the complete works for piano of Prokofiev. They began with Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a lovely and engaging work that represents the composer in a relaxed and thoughtful pose. Bell instantly had the attention of his audience, with confident and authoritative playing. One could be at ease in one’s seat with him—there would not be errors or interpretive foolishness. His intonation was secure. He played simply, straightforwardly, with a modesty that becomes this sort of music, and, really, all music. The demand here is to allow the score to be transparent, which Bell did. The Coplandian intervals —stamped on the work like a signature— were clear and unforced. This was alert and rhythmically intelligent playing, with the violinist respecting the notes on the page and taking no undue liberties—one could easily have transcribed the piece from this performance.

At the beginning of the Lento movement came single strokes, perfectly inflected. Here, too, Bell was refreshingly simple (’tis a gift to be). Never was there a hint of excess or affectation. The final Allegretto was sprightly and well articulated. Bell—in another mark of the judicious musician— knows which notes are to be accented and which are not. His forte playing was bracing and resolute, with some warmth in it, but still bright, not soppy. Bell’s tone is, in fact, admirably adaptable, as in the best string playing. It can be crystalline or buttery—his choice, or, rather, the music’s. He always seems to do what he should, offering this color or that, giving more vibrato or less, as the situation dictates. He is also a good manager of music, and might—for this and other reasons—make a fine conductor, if he so chose.

The second work on the program was another twentieth-century sonata, of a starkly different character—Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in F Minor. Bell’s account of it was etched with modernist precision. Beauty is not necessarily the point in this music, as Bell well knows. He also knows that Prokofiev requires a measure of coldness, and a martial feeling, and some mystery, and even a bit of insanity. His playing was severe and angular, in the Russian style. Indeed, he was as Russian in his Prokofiev as he was American in his Copland. His “off-the-bow” runs were gossamer, yet true and distinguishable. Of any rhythmic complexity, he was, again, the master. In the Andante, Bell achieved an astonishing, muted beauty; his playing was otherworldly, nimble, and aware. His trills were fluttering or taut, snarling or spooky; his pianos were ghostly. It seems that nothing is beyond his ability to convey. Though his technique is not flashy or ostentatious, he always seems to have enough.

After intermission came Bartók’s First Rhapsody for Violin and Piano (“Folk Dances”), a work that is usually played with orchestra but was done here in its original form. There is, of course, a touch of the gypsy in every violinist, and Bell has a healthy dose of it. In this appealing piece, he provided a nice contrast between the raucous and the sweet. Simplicity, once more, served him well, with not a note or a dynamic wasted. There is dance in his bow. He can sing blithely, and he can tear up the strings with virtuosity.

To end the program was the Ravel sonata, the least frequently heard of the great and beloved French sonatas (the others being the Fauré, the Debussy, and the Franck— and let there be no complaining that Franck was, in fact, a Belgian). Here, Bell was pure and correct, producing a sublime cantabile. It takes technique to put an audience in impressionistic dreamland, and this he did— but with a hidden technique, devoid of artifice, enabling honesty of expression. The final movement, Perpetuum mobile, was infused with a constant (well, perpetual) energy, and Bell’s loose (read: relaxed and supple) technique resulted in a thrillingly tight performance—one of the great paradoxes of musical technique.

Bell, who enjoyed superb training, has the unteachable: musical judgment, taste. The repertory of the violin is vast, and he can play all of it, with no specialty or deficiency. He recalls a violinist of a past generation, Zino Francescatti, the impeccable Frenchman with the lilting Italian name. Bell, like him, is something better than a violinist: He is a musician. He is also one of the most underrated performers, critically, before the public today, a condition that can hardly last forever.

The following night, it was Mutter’s turn. She was in town for a month-long “residency,” as concert organizations have taken to calling such extended stays, including six performances with the New York Philharmonic and two recitals in Carnegie Hall, of which this was the first. Accompanying her was the pianist Lambert Orkis, an amiable American known for his puckish comments from the stage and his advocacy of contemporary music. They began with Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, written in 1910, but seeming as modern and radical as anything composed this morning. Mutter, too, is proud to be a champion of new music, and the works commissioned by or for her come fast and furiously.

In the Webern, Mutter showed that she deserves her reputation as a skillful proponent of the modern. Her tone was well adapted to the music—wan, disembodied, bleak. Webern sought to be as spare as possible in his writing, and Mutter’s playing reflected that spirit. She has an obvious affinity for this music, which helps to bring others along, even when they may be reluctant. In the first minutes of her recital, she succeeded in creating a distinctive and unusual atmosphere—an achievement.

The Respighi violin sonata lies outside the major repertory, and not without reason: blowzy with romantic effusions, it is not especially distinguished. Mutter employed her characteristic sound, which is pleasant, thin-ribboned, and slightly watery. She achieved some ethereal pianissimos. But, as is often the case with her, this was competent playing that did not rise to the remarkable or memorable. She failed to lend to the piece much character, which was perhaps not entirely her fault. The sonata is episodic, overwrought, and melodramatic. It may be thought of as Liszt for the violin —full of bombast, albeit pretty-sounding at times. Respighi even ends with a tremolo for the piano, as if in tribute to Liszt, the king of the tremolo and other vulgar musical gestures.

The second half of the program opened with a work by George Crumb, his Four Nocturnes for Violin and Piano (Night Music II) (Crumb is a big one for dual titles). Orkis made an appeal from the stage before the two began the piece, begging for silence from an audience that had shaken the roof with its coughing. This is—Orkis was not wrong to beseech—a quiet and disquieting work, tranquil and jarring. It involves the typical Crumbian tricks: The pianist leans into the belly of his instrument, plucking and strumming the strings; the violinist also plucks and strums, in addition to hitting and rubbing. The duo performed this work with utmost respect and not a little effectiveness, and the composer—robust and beaming—was on hand to receive his share of applause.

Mutter, like Bell, waded into Bartók, although that composer’s Violin Sonata No. 2, forbidding and cerebral, bears little resemblance to the friendly Rhapsody. Mutter acquitted herself well, giving the sonata a drive, an inexorability. Like her counterpart from Indiana, she has good rhythmic sense, and ample technique. Yet she is sometimes guilty of dull playing, even if it is otherwise unobjectionable. It is hard to fault her specifically—she is an able violinist by any fair standard—but one often finds oneself hoping that she will catch a gust of inspiration.

Last on the printed program was Ravel’s popular Tzigane (meaning “gypsy”), which Mutter lit into at an unusually fast clip. On the whole, she was commanding, if a bit wobbly in spots. She produced a pleasingly rough sound; she put just the right amount of throb in her vibrato (she, too, has gypsy in her hands); her octaves were clean and well weighted. But, in contrast to Bell, one could not entirely relax with her, trusting that all would be well: One had to look out for bumps, dips, and hiccups. Mutter lost refinement in the upper register, and she was occasionally pinched, lacking flexibility and freedom. She managed to complete her task, as she always does, but it seems more an effort than is perhaps desirable. She is a capable violinist, and even an excellent one, but she is not—not yet, at least—a transcendent, enthralling one. She survives a performance, when an immortal would triumph or transform in it. Her sole encore was more Ravel, the Habanera, which she dispatched limply and indifferently.

We are, let us rejoice, rich in violinists, even in quite young ones. There is Maxim Vengerov (age twenty-five), Gil Shaham (twenty-eight), Midori (one name, please, and she is twenty-seven), and the bedazzling Hilary Hahn, who at only nineteen is already a deeply satisfying violinist. In this group, Joshua Bell and Anne-Sophie Mutter seem senior statesmen. They will presumably continue to grow in wisdom and ability. But they have already accomplished, in their twenty-year careers, a fair amount —and this is especially true of the relatively unsung one from the great Midwest.

 

Notes
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  1. Joshua Bell appeared at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, on January 9; Anne-Sophie Mutter appeared at Carnegie Hall on January 10. Go back to the text.

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