Child of a psychologist and a therapist, Joshua Bell did not take the usual early pedagogic path for a violinist. He was interested in computer games and sports more than music, coming fourth in a national tennis competition at the age of ten. He was, however, given a violin at the age of five after his parents saw him plucking elastic bands like a musical instrument, imitating his mother playing the piano.
Taught initially by Donna Bricht, then Mimi Zweig (who has developed child string pedagogy in various US institutions), he later became a protégé of Josef Gingold and began to take the violin seriously. Lessons with Gingold were augmented by masterclasses with Galamian and Szeryng. Of Gingold, Bell says: ‘I was extremely fortunate to have studied violin with this great master. I considered (him) […] my mentor and grandfather figure […] I am reminded of his resounding voice, his sense of humour, his generous spirit, his glorious sound and incredible technique and, even more importantly as a student, his link to the violinists of the past.’
At fourteen Bell made his first orchestral appearance, winning a talent competition sponsored by Seventeen magazine and General Motors. A management contract ensued. Always aware of bringing classical music to a wider audience (rather like Midori and Rachel Barton Pine) he has appeared on the children’s programme Sesame Street as well as in a BBC television documentary. He has also played at large-scale events including a Memorial Day Concert at the Washington Capitol.
Bell has premièred new works by composers including Nicholas Maw (whose Violin Concerto was written for him), John Corigliano and Edgar Meyer. He is Music Director of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, an ensemble with which he made highly successful recordings in 1988 of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.
Having once played the violin known as the ‘Gibson ex-Huberman’ 1713 Stradivarius, made during the Stradivari ‘golden’ period, Bell was desperate to own it. After selling his previous Stradivarius for c. $2,000,000 he paid c. $4,000,000 for it and now plays on this instrument.
Bell’s playing epitomises the soulful sound associated with many present-day American-trained musicians, although he does avoid the quasi-flautando wispiness that many modern players produce. This is well conveyed by his 2008 Vivaldi ‘Quattro stagioni’ which is clean and delicate, suitably agile and, whilst stylistically conventional, sensitive to the period and tradition.
There are some very fine concerto recordings here including, from 1997, an intense Walton Concerto and a Barber Concerto which, whilst paying homage to the established approach originating in Stern’s 1964 recording, is far from a clone of this performance, with a warmer, less searching tone, and slower, more pronounced portamenti further enhancing the work’s Romantic credentials. His Goldmark A minor Concerto (2000)—a work unjustly neglected by many present-day players—captures the composer’s muscular and cheerfully heroic attitude with aplomb, corroborating Henry Roth’s early praise of Bell as ‘a violinist of daring and enterprise’.
In violin and piano repertoire there is a youthful (1988) performance of Nováček’s Perpetuum mobile which is commendable as a rather more insightful and stylish performance than many in this genre. Prokofiev’s Sonata in D (1995) receives a warm-hearted and well-paced reading here too, further proving Bell to be an immaculate and sensitive player.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist