I was right there at the Dock Street Theatre, the very first time violin superstar Joshua Bell and wonder-pianist Jeremy Denk got together. Bell, whose early Spoleto appearances helped launch his glittering career, returned to Charleston during the festival's 2004 edition to take part in chamber guru Charles Wadsworth's 75th birthday celebrations. Denk, as the chamber series' resident pianist that year, got to be his keyboard collaborator.
I'll never forget it. From the moment they threw themselves into Grieg's searing C Minor Violin Sonata, everybody in the audience knew they were hearing something super-special, even by Spoleto's lofty standards. Both artists must've felt the magic of the moment, too, because they've been making music together ever since. It's a musical partnership made in heaven. And their most recent joint appearance was at the Gaillard on Monday evening, courtesy of the Charleston Concert Association.
They warmed up their packed house with Leos Janácek's rarely-heard Sonata for Violin and Piano: a deeply affecting wartime piece charged with fear and foreboding. Some relief came with moments of uneasy calm and folksy charm, but the finale's edgy mutterings brought the original mood back — despite brief lyrical episodes employing one of Janácek's loveliest melodies.
Then it was on to Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 3, the often stormy and extroverted one in D minor that pushes the limits of the genre. The opening's gypsy fire gave way to the expansive lyricism and mercurial musings of the following sections. The headlong finale crackled with restless tension.
After halftime, Bell returned alone to deliver the second of Eugene Ysaye's six stupendous solo violin sonatas — probably the best-known of the series. Bell gave a verbal introduction to the piece, and spoke of his direct "line of succession" to the composer via his teacher and mentor Josef Gingold, himself a student of Ysaye, one of the greatest violinists who ever lived.
The second sonata is a cunning synthesis of snippets from one of Bach's exalted solo violin sonatas and the ominous Day of Judgement theme that many composers have used over the centuries. Bell delivered this fiendishly difficult tour de force with his usual effortless virtuosity and deep feeling. Of all the evening's offerings, this one gave us our best chance to savor the radiant tonal range of his instrument: a vintage Stradivarius.
Denk rejoined his partner for the grand finale: Cesar Franck's glowing and ardent A Major Violin Sonata. This is French romanticism at its glorious best, and our artists gave it the finest performance I've ever heard live — by far.
It brought the house down (up, actually), in a raucous standing O that got us a sweet and soulful encore: Jules Massenet's evergreen "Meditation" from his opera, Thais. How do you put this level of artistic teamwork into words? There's a mystical rapport — a deep musical communion — between these two that defies description. It's a totally selfless thing; no big egos trying to steal the show. Each inspires the other. The music, and its lucky listeners, are the winners in the end.
My only complaint is that the Gaillard is hardly the ideal chamber music venue. While the Brahms sonata was "symphonic" enough to fare well in such an open acoustic, Bell's gorgeous tone lost some of its depth and luster in such a cavernous space. I'd much rather have heard him at Dock Street.