In 2002 Joshua Bell had a new $4 million violin. He had just saved the Huberman Stradivarius from ending up with a collector who intended it for a museum, the last place instruments of that caliber need to be. To raise the cash Bell sold his own Stradivarius for two million and somehow managed to raise the other half. I can only assume he has paid it off by now; the 47 year old is one of the most highly regarded violinists of our time, after all, having released over 40 albums during his career.
I’ve mentioned Bell’s beloved Huberman Stradivarius on the blog before, on the occasion of getting to see him play it just a few weeks ago at Chicago’s Symphony Center – its background is one of the best stories in violin lore. When he obtained it, the violin needed some work, but when it was ready the first recording Bell made with the legendary instrument was a compilation of short, slow works for violin entitled Romance of the Violin, released in 2003. My youngest sister gave me the CD for Christmas (thank you again!), and I listened through the album twice yesterday.
The tone Bell produces on these evocative pieces, flowing beautifully out of the Huberman, is unmatched. While Bell is known for his virtuosic interpretations of showier pieces, those of us in love with the violin tend to find great pleasure in its slower side as well; the richness of pieces like Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, Camille Saint-Saens’ The Swan and Dvorak’s Songs My Mother Taught Me is breathtaking and emotional.
Operatic and lyrical, Bell selected pieces that are not necessarily associated with his instrument for this compilation. He reimagined works originally for piano, such as the Chopin Nocturne, and voice, such as Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro, skillfully transcribing them for the violin himself. The liner notes, by Linda Kobler, quote Bell discussing a long history of such adaptations, “A violinist in the time of Chopin would not think twice about arranging piano works for violin. Neither did violinists like Sarasate, Wieniawski, or Kreisler – they all did it…..If people can just let their minds go, I think you begin to realize that writing a beautiful melody transcends the instrument itself.” Bell goes on to note a personal favorite on the album – Massenet’s Elegie: O doux printemps d’autrefoix, a work he chose by the composer due to it being less well known than another.
Bell recorded this album with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a world-class ensemble he now leads as its artistic director. At the time of this recording, the ensemble was guided by the skillful Michael Stern. A British group (though Bell is a native of Indiana), the album was recorded at the storied Abbey Road Studios in London.
I’m thrilled to have a top-notch recording of some of these pieces with which I was familiar, and to have been introduced to many solo pieces new to me. The album offers some things old and some things new, all lusciously laid down in mouthwatering tones. I’m going to refill my coffee and listen to it again right now.
Thanks for reading.
Correction: I got to thinking about Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor, and it was originally arranged for violin by Nathan Milstein, though Bell’s version is definitely his own.