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Review: Joshua Bell romances the repertoire

A man and his music

By Porter Anderson
CNN

A man and his music

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'Romance of the Violin'
Joshua Bell
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Michael Stern conducting
Sony Classical
Available in download from iTunes and Napster, as well as in CD format
BELL'S VIOLIN

Joshua Bell plays the "Gibson ex Huberman" violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1713.  Its varnish gives it a reddish color -- something enjoyed by fans of Bell's work in the soundtrack to Francois Girard's 1998 film, "The Red Violin."  The "ex Huberman" was stolen in 1936 from violinist Bronislaw Huberman, was recovered in 1987 and was subsequently acquired by Bell, whose earlier Stradivari was the 1732 "Tom Taylor." 
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Joshua Bell

(CNN) -- "Romance" is a term we slight in modern parlance. We use it most frequently to refer to love affairs and the airport-bookstore novels that sensationalize them.

Well, help just is a CD or a mere download away: You could ask for no more muscularly sensitive an instructor on the richer meanings of the term "romance" than Joshua Bell. And just in time to stuff the stockings of the most articulate people on your gift list, Bell has released "Romance of the Violin" -- a regal stroll through a shimmering gallery of precious, if nearly lost, meanings of the phrase.

This is Bell's 27th album. That still-youthful guy from Indiana -- the one whose psychotherapist parents handed a violin when he was 4 -- is now in his mid-30s. And Bell's gifts today are so seamlessly supported by his technical skill that he stands (and bobs and weaves and crouches and twists in his sterling live performances) as one of the world's most agile and sought-after violinists.

This swell -- the one with the $4 million 1713 "Gibson ex Huberman" Stradivari violin so casually slung over one shoulder -- wants to "talk" to you this time about music that will have you saying, "Oh, I know that one" over and over.

Take the opening track, Giacomo Puccini's charmer "O mio babbino caro." You may have seen Bell arrest the usual hijinks on Conan O'Brien's show with this piece recently. A harpist and several string players quietly swayed behind him to help call into serene session the boulevard-Euro sense of sheer order that one form of "romance" establishes. Within a few bars of the violin's entrance, this quintessentially Italianate melody softly sits your soul down on a quiet bench and structures your world, too briefly.

Another side of "romance" is a darker, reachier longing. Bell's sobbing strength in Jules Massenet's "Elegie: O doux printemps" can shoulder that context, too, summoning up the glissandi -- those sliding cries -- the work requires, but without ever letting the piece go maudlin.

'Guy romance?'

What develops here in the course of this CD's tour of tonalities is that one of Bell's greatest secrets is his distinctively masculine approach to his music.

Such gems as Camille Saint-Saens' "The Swan" and the Andante from Mozart's 21st piano concerto, the "Elvira Madigan," are frequently associated with stereotypically feminine "romance." With Bell at the bow, all that drops away.

Claude Debussy's "The Girl With the Flaxon Hair" has an almost Copland-esque stateliness. Chopin's "Nocturne" takes on the trilling mystique of a brooding "romance" of the adventurous kind, supported by the pizzicato precision of the strings of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Michael Stern's guidance.

So what is this, "guy romance"? Well, the ladies will love it, don't worry. (As they love Bell -- his CD signings sometimes look like singles nights among the culturati.) But what you're hearing here is something less delicate, less dainty than the norm in work of this kind.

Bell turns "romance" into its verb form.

He romances that beautiful reddish Strad of his with such assured sensuality that Franz Schubert's famed "Serenade" turns its Viennese cunning into the great, rueful buddy-smile of a friend who knows way too much. Bell's affection for this music is so subtly playful that you have to listen several times to realize just how much vulnerability he's suggesting in tiny retards and quick feints to pianissimo.

For those who want to know more, Linda Kobler's liner notes go into how Bell has used transcriptions of other instruments' or vocal showpieces to compile this repertoire.

But most listeners will simply want to let the aural genius of this musical linguist work his way through his vast vocabulary of "romance" -- it's a whole new meaning, track after track.

Joshua Bell is scheduled to appear on PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" in a program hosted by Beverly Sills at 8 p.m. EST on January 14. He's expected to perform several pieces from "Romance of the Violin" with members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.


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