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Joshua Bell on Rediscovering a Masterpiece

More than thirty years after his first recording, Joshua Bell on a new release revisits the Violin Concerto of Max Bruch that appeared on that debut. Joining him is the ensemble he’s led for the past seven years, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. “Definitely a different experience than when I played at the age of 18, with the same orchestra, but under the direction of Neville Marriner back then. It’s definitely a new piece for me now… I’ve performed it hundreds of times, and with probably at least a hundred conductors over the years. And after each performance you learn something, sometimes what not to do, sometimes what you like, and little details, things that sort of carry over to the next performance. Eventually, you’re telling the story of this piece in different ways, it sort of evolves.”

The recording industry was very different in those days, and Bell says the famously prolific Sir Neville Mariner was very efficient in the studio. “There are a few [ASMF] members that still remember, we joke about me coming in as a naïve 18 year old, wide-eyed into the studio. Actually, we didn’t even perform it together back then and had – not even a rehearsal. I just jumped into the studio, and the red light turned on, and they said ‘Play.’ In retrospect, if someone were to ask me to do that today, I’d say they were out of their minds. Probably not the way to record, but I didn’t know any better back then.”

Bell says despite its reputation – the great violinist Joseph Joachim put the Bruch concerto on a par with the concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn – there’s a tendency for many players to not give it its proper due. “It’s a piece that we tend, as violinists, to play first. So you have a lot of 12-year-olds playing their first big concerto with the Bruch. And sometimes because of that, we as players, or even listeners think of the piece, ‘oh, it’s like a student concerto.’ As I’ve gotten older, I had to kind of rediscover it as an adult, and look at it in a different way, and realize it’s one of the great masterpieces. And get out of mind all of us, including myself, hacking away at the piece as 12-year-olds. Because it really is one of the great gems of the repertoire.”

“And now that I’m directing it as well, because with the Academy, I’ve been performing it a lot without a conductor, I am the conductor, it also breathes sort of a new life into it. I get to work on all the little details of the orchestra that I didn’t always get a chance to do, and this sort of opens up a whole range of possibilities for controlling the way I want the piece to go, which is so exciting for me.”

The other work on the album is one that’s also very familiar, but surprisingly, Bell had never until now recorded. “The Scottish Fantasy is a particular favorite of mine, and just, I think, is one of the most touching pieces written for the violin, and it’s beautifully orchestrated, and it’s another audience pleaser. It’s a piece I’ve loved my whole life, but actually didn’t get around to even learning it to play or perform until the last ten years or so. And finally, after about ten years of performing, I thought, ‘OK, I’m ready now to lay down my first version of it, at least.’”

Find out more about the album at Arkiv Music.

Written by:
Jeffrey Freymann
Jeffrey Freymann
Published on 06.13.2019