I had the great pleasure of recently attending a riveting performance by Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Australian Youth Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of Joshua Bell. I have previously featured his recording of Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's "Symposium". This post will introduce you to two excellent versions of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto both played by Joshua Bell, a number of years apart (including a Spotify playlist of both recordings for comparisons sake).
I have been to many classical music concerts in my life, some good, some average and some forgettable. I can think of very few concerts that compare to the Australia Youth Orchestra concert that I attended last night. A number of things stand out.The programme included the, seldom heard, Earth Cry by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, featuring the Australian native instrument, the didgeridoo. The programme also included Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, with Joshua Bell leading the orchestra from the concert masters chair, which is unusual for a world famous soloist. During Scheherazade, Bell lead with vigour and fire. The playing from the Australian Youth Orchestra was energetic and enthusiastic. But the main dish, if you will, was Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I must confess that I have rarely heard the outer movements played at such a furious pace. However, the execution was immaculately precise and effortless and Bell's tone was beautiful and silky, as can be expected from him. Bell was on hand after the concert to give a casual and entertaining interview (see youTube video below).
His performance inspired me to revisit the two recordings that he has made of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, one in his youth and one more recently. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is considered to be one of the greatest, most difficult violin concertos ever written and it is certainly one of my all time favourites. I managed to buy a copy of the score in my teens (many years ago) and have vainly tried to play the few bits that my limited ability allows since. I can attest to the difficulty of this work.
Joshua Bell's earlier recording (in his early 20's) on the Decca label accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy has always been one of my favourites. It was unavailable for a number of years, which made this re-issue even more welcome. Bell's interpretation here is already well formed and mature and his playing is crisp, clear and articulate. His sound is sumptuous and full and he makes easy work of the difficult sections.
The most recent recording (in his mid-30's) on the Sony label accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas is taken from a live recording in January 2005 in the Berlin Philharmonie. The slower tempo of the opening movement allows Bell to explore and exploit the lyrical qualities of the music and his playing with his sweet, beautiful tone. This is an exciting recording of this concerto with full blooded accompaniment from the orchestra. Bell's execution and playing are secure, crisp and ever reliable. The live performance adds an extra element of excitement and adrenaline, which the audience evidently responded well to. My only quibble about this live recording is the appearance of the "bravo person" at the end of the last movement who shrieks their delight before the tension and atmosphere has had a chance to settle.
I find both recordings of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to be excellent and worthwhile for slightly different reasons. True genius is the ability to achieve great results consistently. These recordings should leave little doubt of what Joshua Bell is capable of.
Below is the aforementioned interview with Bell after the performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto in Amsterdam. There are some surprising moments...skip to 14:56 if you can't wait:
Links to the recordings: