Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood find a rewarding musical partnership

November 14, 2013 at 1:51 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood will perform Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston.

When pianist Sam Haywood first met violinist Joshua Bell four years ago at the home of cellist Steven Isserlis, a mutual friend, it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration marked by respect and friendship.

Working with Haywood marks a change for Bell since the solo career of his long-time pianist, Jeremy Denk, had taken off, making it difficult for the violinist to “steal any of his time to do music,” Bell said. So Isserlis, who had performed with Haywood in Europe, recommended that Bell meet with the British pianist.

Bell and Haywood talked, played music together, and, not long afterwards, began preparing programs for an upcoming European tour. Since then, they have given recitals around the globe.

“It’s been a wonderful discovery for me,” said Bell of their musical partnership earlier this fall, speaking from his New York home.

“In chamber music it’s like a conversation, and certain people are just more interesting to talk to, I suppose,” agreed the pianist. “Every time we play it’s a little different . . . It always stays fresh even if we play the same program thirty times in a row. Each evening it’s a different feeling.”

Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Bell and Haywood will perform a wide-ranging program of music by Tartini, Beethoven, and Stravinsky for the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Organizing programs like this one is akin to putting together a fine meal where each entree has to complement the others, says the violinist.  “I like this kind of program where you get a span of the repertoire with the right amount of meat and potatoes and the right amount of lighter things,” said Bell.

The opener, Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, is not entirely a light affair. Each movement is technically demanding for the soloist. Double stops pepper the lyrical Larghetto. The second movement drives ever forward in perpetual motion rhythm. But the final movement promises to feature Bell in some dazzling musical fireworks.

The story of the finale, which gives the sonata its nickname “The Devils’ Trill,” is the stuff of legend. According to the eighteenth-century French astronomer and writer Jérôme Lalande, Tartini claimed that the Devil appeared to him in a dream, playing the violin with such transcendent technique that the composer was unable to breathe. The movement’s opening Andante captures Tartini’s dreamlike state. The fiery passages, depicting the Devil’s playing from the dream, comprises surfeit double and triple stops in sustained, agitated trills that inch steadily up the violin fingerboard.

“It’s Baroque virtuosity and a really brilliant piece,” said Bell, who has been playing the sonata since he was young. “It’s a great way to start the program.”

Bell and Haywood will explore twentieth-century fare with Stravinsky’s Divertimento for violin and piano after the 1928 ballet The Fairy’s Kiss.  

Based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy’s Kiss resembles the famous fairy tale ballets of Tchaikovsky. It is also a memorial in music for the old Russian master.  Stravinsky, a life-long admirer of Tchaikovsky’s music, built his score upon some of the composer’s songs and smaller piano pieces.  The Divertimento for violin and piano that resulted from the score, a collaboration between the composer and violinist Samuel Dushkin, “has got that distinctive Stravinsky flavor but impregnated with the romantic Tchaikovsky feeling at the same time,” said Haywood.

“It is full of strong rhythmic elements and bombast,” Bell added.

For the main course on Sunday’s recital, the duo will offer Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, No. 10 in D major, Op. 96.

Composed in 1812, the same year of the “Archduke” Piano Trio, the sonata’s four movements contain the same lyrical style Beethoven explored in his Fourth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto.

“The D major is much more intimate, much more personal perhaps [than the others]” said Haywood.  “It’s quite a unique composition in many ways, quite understated. There’s a lot of wonderful dialogue between the violin and piano.”

The sonata, even for a seasoned performer like Bell, never grows old.

“It’s not quite late Beethoven,” he said. “To get inside a piece like that, the heart of it, is very difficult, though rewarding. The tenth sonata of Beethoven is one of his greatest pieces, certainly one of the most profound of his ten sonatas.”

“I guess you could make a case for that,” Haywood answered when asked if he held the piece in the same esteem.  “[The sonatas] each have such good individual qualities. But certainly the tenth would be one of my top choices if I were asked which I liked to hear in concert.”

“It’s like people in a way,” the pianist added.  “It’s difficult to pick which person you like best from a group of your friends.”

For Bell, collaborations with friends aren’t restricted to the concert stage. His latest album, “Musical Gifts,” similar to his previous recording “At Home with Friends,” features the violinist in musical partnerships with several musicians–such as Kristen Chenoweth, Chris Botti, Chick Corea, and Bradford Marsalis–in classical-popular crossover arrangements of holiday favorites. Bell, Haywood, and Isserlis even team up for a trio version of the final movement of Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem.  

“I think of everything as chamber music,” he said of the project.  “But I really enjoy . . . taking music that we know and making new and interesting arrangements for different combinations of instruments.”

“I think some people get a little cynical about crossovers, and for good reason,” he added. “But when it’s done right, it can be very interesting. For me, musically, I learn so much from these people.”

For Haywood the experience has been especially far-reaching.

“What I love about [Josh’s] playing is his generosity of spirit,” the pianist said.  “He paints in very bold colors on the stage. People can really identify with what he’s trying to convey.”

“I can hear how he phrases something even when I’m giving solo recital. I sometimes write under a certain phrase, ‘Josh,’ just to remind me how he would play it,” Haywood added.

“I think playing with such great people is always inspiring.”

Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood will perform 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.; 617-482-2595 

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