The whole classical music world -- or, at least, the violin classical music world -- has been abuzz for months about "French Impressions," a stunning new recording by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. The CD was heralded by tremendous publicity before its release in January of this year and highly praised by reviewers since then. The recording artists have given interviews about the music and their interactions with each other as performers. Now I add my humble impressions of "French Impressions."
"French Impressions" contains three pieces for piano and violin written by Saint-Saens, Franck, and Ravel, composers of the French Impressionist style and contemporaries of the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. French Impressionist paintings are all about color, nuance, and light. Likewise, French Impressionist music emphasizes the color of each note. It is about sound for sound's sake.
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk have toured and concertized together for seven years. How have they developed and maintained a productive relationship? When the two musicians first played together, they just clicked, according to Bell. They shared some basic musical values. Their differences are important, too. Bell says that Denk is a scholar, and Denk says that Bell is a great communicator. The two musicians argue through their different perceptions of the music and how it should be played, a process which Bell describes as "fun." They approach and play music as equals, not as a violin soloist with a piano accompanist.
My very first reaction to "French Impressions," after hearing only a few notes, was that the quality of the sound was wonderful in a way that I had not experienced before. It was rich, coherent, and very close to me. There was no sense of directionality. The sound completely surrounded and engulfed me. I read later that Bell wanted just this quality of sound. He said that he didn't want the person listening to his CD to feel as though he were sitting in the audience of a concert hall with two musicians onstage. Instead, he wanted the listener to hear the music as if he were right on stage with the musicians. The producer of this recording, Steve Epstein, worked hard to get this effect, running around and between the musicians with extra microphones as necessary. Bell certainly got the results he wanted.
The first piece on the recording, the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Saint-Saens, is by far the most calm and tranquil. In the first movement, this sonata shows its good credentials as French Impressionist music. It is about color, not melody. Most of the piece is tender, gentle, and playful.
The Franck sonata is the centerpiece of the recording, and it is interesting from many perspectives.
I have known and loved a 1989 recording of the Franck sonata played by Joshua Bell and Jean-Yves Thibaud. The performance on the current CD is infinitely better. When an interviewer recently asked Bell about the earlier recording, Bell answered uncomfortably that he hasn't listened to it in 20 years.
The varieties of color, note by note, are especially dramatic in the violin part. Each note can stand by itself as a work of art. Bell uses subtle variations in such techniques as vibrato to convey dramatic differences in the color of each note. The listener can appreciate these variations in different ways. One can listen carefully to catch the individual beauty of every note, or one can relax and let the stream of colors sparkle, shimmer, and drift by. I am reminded of John Lennon's advice to lean back, relax, and float downstream, although he was actually describing a very happy LSD trip.
Many pieces of music evoke images for me, but the Franck sonata gives me a mixed perception of sound and light. There really aren’t any words to describe this perception. People who have had good trips on LSD or other hallucinogens have spoken of the mixing of senses. They say that they can hear colors, taste sounds, etc. If you want a mini-psychodelic experience, listen to the Franck sonata in the way John Lennon described.
The Franck sonata is captivating from the very start. The first movement conveys to me a sense of the many colors of sweetness. In spite of the emphasis on sound for sound’s sake, it has a very lovable melody. You can walk away humming it. The part of the sonata that comes closest to the sound of color is, for me, the second movement. Here the music sounds like shimmering, glowing light. I especially like the third movement. One short theme is repeated over and over with every imaginable nuance of color in the violin, the piano, and the combination of the two instruments. The fourth movement has a distinct, pleasing, and very sing-able melody.
As a violinist, I have benefitted greatly from Laurie Niles's interview with Jeremy Denk on violinist.com. He discusses the considerable technical demands and virtuosic potential of the piano part of the Franck sonata. He also advises violinists to pay particular attention to the bass line of the piano because the violin must fit well with it.
Another very impressive piece on this recording is Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. I was fortunate enough to hear this piece performed live by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk (See my blog on violinist.com), and I found it very moving. It is so dramatic that it lifts me up every time I hear it. It is an unusual jazz piece. Jazz was born in the U.S., but it has always been popular in France. Ravel put his own spin on it. He used jazz rhythms most dramatically in the first movement. Bell noted that part of the second movement sounds like “Summertime,” which was written much later (1933-1935) by George Gershwin. The resemblance is striking. “Summertime” has become a jazz standard and has been recorded over 25,000 times. It was arranged for violin, performed, and recorded by Heifetz and has become a staple of the violin repertoire. When Bell played this jazz fragment, he followed in the footsteps of the great Heifetz. In another part of the sonata, Bell plays some flashy pizzicato that sounds like a jazz guitar.
Another interesting aspect of Ravel’s sonata is its dance-like quality. Ravel wrote a great deal of dance music including La Valse, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Pavane for a Dead Princess, and several ballet scores. Various parts of his sonata sound like swirling dances, gypsy dances, or high energy foot stomping dances. I love this recording because Ravel, Bell, and Denk give their listeners so many varieties of beauty in just one piece.
"French Impressions"is now among my best loved CDs. I listen to it over and over, and I love it more each time.
Here are some resources I used for writing this article. You may find them interesting, too.
Sound samples (with option to buy) and press release on Joshua Bell's website.