By Lawrence Budmen

Joshua Bell is the quintessential romantic violin virtuoso. With his lush tone, dazzlingly fleet finger work and ultra passionate musical approach, Bell is the perfect soloist for 19th century bravura showpieces. Saint-Saens’ Concerto No.3 in B minor fits him like a glove. Bell gave a blazing account of the score with the New World Symphony under Vladimir Ashkenazy on January 24, 2009 at the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida, USA.

Saint-Saens is an underrated composer. An unapologetic romantic who refused to engage in the varied strands of modernism that engulfed the music world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Saint-Saens created superbly crafted scores that blossom with alluring melodies and instrumental coloration. (The Australian conductor Geoffrey Simon has recorded and revived many of the French composer’s neglected works.)

The 3rd Violin Concerto is an unabashedly old fashioned display vehicle, replete with fiddle fireworks and irresistible themes that linger in the mind’s ear long after the performance has concluded. Bell reveled in the score’s heart on the sleeve sentimentality, bringing intense penetration to the confrontational drama (between soloist and orchestra) of the initial Allegro non troppo. He tossed off the elegant Andantino with gossamer lightness, reserving his flashiest pyrotechnical display for the finale. Strikingly, Bell slimmed down his tone as he traced the lyrical third subject of that movement with meltingly beautiful finesse. For all his matinee idol looks and violinistic razzle dazzle, Bell remains an artist of the first rank.

Ashkenazy’s lively presence and animated podium manner channeled propulsive accompaniment, skillfully dovetailing the soloist’s quick silver phrasing and rhythmic incisiveness. The conductor astutely highlighted Saint-Saens’ Gallic wind writing; the New World players shaping the prominent flute, oboe and clarinet parts with verve and élan.

Ashkenazy can be an eccentric conductor. He has held principal conducting positions with orchestras in London, Berlin, Prague, Tokyo and, presently, Sydney. The pianist turned conductor has had a particularly productive relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra (of which he was principal guest conductor). This writer recalls a memorable, truly searing performance of Shostakovich’s gigantic 8th Symphony and a lucid, elegiac account of Elgar’s 1st Symphony from Ashkenazy and the Clevelanders.

The New World players were in fine fettle for Ashkenazy’s decidedly unconventional account of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 in D Major (Titan). A resounding brass contingent featuring sonorous horns and clarion trumpets brought the symphony’s stormy finale to a glorious conclusion. Mahler’s elegant wind writing was subtly conveyed. Ashkenazy tended to pounce on every musical exclamation point with wild, sudden fluctuations of tempo and emphasis. Yet contemporary accounts of Mahler’s conducting suggest similar unconventional gear shifts rather than the linear style of the post Toscanini era.

Ashkenazy’s performance was more than the sum of its parts. His sense of sustained line channeled the mystery of the score’s opening pages and the eerie, heart stopping funeral march of the third movement. The conductor’s languid manner with the landler interlude in the second movement perfectly was properly Vienesse without undue exaggeration.While this performance lacked the aristocratic classicism of Dohnanyi or Abbado or the haunting passion of Rattle, it remained a stirring, emotional experience - the very essence of Mahler.



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