Joshua Bell’s Bach Album

Unknown-24Joshua Bell released his newest album yesterday. The CD, simply titled “Bach”, is Bell’s first recording collaboration with the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since becoming the orchestra’s music director in 2011.

If you’re expecting another predictable round of Bach concertos, you may be surprised. This album includes the monumental Chaconne from Partita No. 2 with Mendelssohn’s rare piano accompaniment (adapted for orchestra), as well as Schumann’s accompaniment of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3. It’s not the way you would want to hear solo Bach every day. In fact, Mendelssohn’s addition practically turns the Chaconne into a completely new piece. Still, these offerings fall to the category of historical curiosity and are worth exploring.

It’s the A Minor and E Major Violin Concertos which make this recording stand out. The connection between Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields feels more like chamber music than a violin solo with orchestra accompaniment. There is incredible attention to detail, balance, and sense of dialogue. In the haunting second movement of the E Major Concerto, the bass line converses with the solo violin, while long sustained chords in the violins suggest an atmosphere of mystery. Bell occasionally adds ornaments and captures the joy of the Baroque dance-like rhythms. Air on the G String is also included. “Bach” is available on iTunes.

The release of Joshua Bell’s CD coincided with his return to the Washington D.C. metro yesterday. This time, unlike his extensively publicized 2007 experiment, commuters recognized him and stopped to listen.

You can hear Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in this clip of the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Also, listen to him play the Bach Chaconne in its original, unaccompanied form:

Scenes from Childhood

Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Opus 15 (“Scenes from Childhood”) supports the adage that good things can come in small packages. Schumann wrote this set of thirteen short pieces for solo piano in 1838 as adult memories of childhood. Rooted in an ethos of Romanticism, each piece evokes a distinct mood. In this highly economic music a single chord can create great drama and every note seems perfect.

Let’s listen to the first piece in the collection, Of Foreign Lands and Peoples. It’s performed here by Lang Lang:

Did you notice how the music plays with our expectations? It constantly searches for the right notes and chords that will lead to an ultimate goal. The fun lies in how we get to the moment of resolution.

Schumann starts with a five note motive that leaps up in pitch and then falls back (B, G, F-sharp, E, D). The bass line, which mirrors the melody in contour and the harmony combine to give us a sense of “moving away and coming home.” Increasing our expectation, the same motive and harmony are repeated (0:05). Then, trying a third time (0:09) the music finds a solution to its own resolution (B, G, E, D, C) and returns home (0:16).

This “A” section repeats. Then a contrasting “B” section starts at 0:34. You’ll notice that the five note rhythmic motive is the same, but now it’s in the bass line. At 0:48 listen to the way the music seems to be completely “lost”-unable to find its way back to the “A” section. Like the dreamlike haze of a distant memory, it evaporates and we are suddenly back in the “A” section.

The most famous piece in the Kinderszenen cycle is the seventh, entitled Traumerei or “Dreaming.” Composer and pianist Rob Kapilow provides a great analysis here. Here is Vladamir Horowitz performing Traumerei in concert:

You can find a recording of Lang Lang performing Schumann’s complete Kinderszenen at iTunes and Amazon. Here is a clip of Horowitz performing it in concert.