Joshua Bell: ‘Bach’ Album Review

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Joshua Bell’s new album, simply titled, Bach, was released at the end of September. That title requires a bit of chutzpah on Mr. Bell’s part; it somehow suggests that this is the definitive Bach album. Leave alone the issue that there were other fairly famous Bachs (the others were mainly his sons with C. P. E. Bach probably the most prominently played today) or that there’s a lot of Bach music, some of which isn’t played on the violin (such as his music for organ), It’s a lot to even claim that this is the definitive recording of J. S. Bach’s Violin Concertos 1 & 2. Given that Classical music is, well, classic, it’s been around a long time (unless you count contemporary orchestral music under that title, but that’s not Bach). So pretty much everything is a “cover” and most of it has been recorded multiple times. So, like I said, chutzpah.

That courage is well earned – Bach is a beautiful album; these are two perfectly sublime pieces and Mr. Bell plays them with passion, precision and nuance. Indeed, the first movement of the first concerto was played in Mr. Bell’s famous subway station redo. Even if you don’t consider yourself a classical music lover, you ought to give this album a listen. The first movement is characterized with fervent and exuberant playing while the second is statelier and more measured, just as they ought to be played. In other words, the music making is world-class fabulous. From a production standpoint, the sound engineering is perfect with Mr. Bell’s characteristically intimate sound without being too forward. The cover exudes a “bring it” attitude as Mr. Bell feels up to the challenge, according to The Detroit Free Press: “Bach is in some ways the holy grail in classical music,” Bell said. “It’s so important to me but important that I get it right. … I kind of finally felt ready.”

So has Mr. Bell done it? Has he captured classical music’s Holy Grail and created the definitive album? After all, his rendition of the Bach Violin Concertos is mesmerizingly beautiful, so can’t we draw the conclusion that this is it. That, my friends, is a non sequitur. It doesn’t follow because there are other mesmerizingly beautiful renditions of these concertos. At this level of world class talent, it really comes down to preference. Let’s take three internationally acclaimed violin soloists, all at the peak of their career: Anne Akiko Meyers, Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell. Each of them have covered these songs. Ms. Meyers did so with the English Chamber Orchestra in Air: The Bach Album (2012), Hilary Hahn plays them with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in Bach Violin Concertos (2003) and Mr. Bell’s Own Bach (2014) with The Academy of St. Martins in the Fields.

While there is a lot more nuance than I’ll provide, for my purposes, the major differences between their recordings are smoothness vs. definition and broad sound stage compared to a more intimate one. The question of definition really amounts to choices in phrasing; it’s a little like taking a rounded musical corner and defining it with a more angular turn.  I believe that Ms. Meyers has the most definition of the three with a quite intimate sound stage: Meyer’s version:Violin Concerto No. 1 BWV 1041 in A Minor, I  and II While Hilary Hahn’s version is the smoothest and broadest sound stage (using Amazon samples since this recording is a little older) of “Violin Concerto No. 1 BWV 1041 in A Minor, I and II” and finally, Mr. Bell’s definition lies between the other two violinists, but also has an intimate sound stage:  Violin Concerto No. 1 BWV 1041 in A Minor, I  and II.”   So it’s a little like wanting a Caddy where you don’t feel the road, an Acura where you feel more of the road but it is still quite smooth, or a Mazda Miata where you feel it all. It’s preference. I happen to like Ms. Meyers’s version the most, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. Thankfully, since I subscribe to the music service, Beats Music, I don’t have to choose. I can revel in them all, and I do. The only real mistake would be to dismiss Bach as an old, dead German guy who can speak to you today with his music. Through any of these artists, he can and does.