All for music, nothing for show

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GREAT BARRINGTON - Joshua Bell made it all seem so natural.

It wasn't only Bell, though he was billed as the star. For his benefit recital Friday night at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, the celebrity violinist brought along pianist Alessio Bax. The duo made music so marvelously together that they might have been twins.

Berkshire concertgoers know Bell from Tanglewood, where he has been an outstanding soloist with the Boston Symphony for 27 consecutive years. He has also taken up conducting, serving since 2011 as music director of London's Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The Mahaiwe glimpse of him in yet another light showed what a thoughtful, well-rounded musician he is.

It wasn't just in the playing. In a varied program of six pieces - he called it a "tasting menu" - Bell broke with current recital practice in several telltale ways.

He didn't talk to the audience (talking to an audience often means talking down to it). He didn't hesitate to read from printed music on a stand. He segued movements to avoid intrusive applause. He declined to give an encore.

He got the audience's adrenalin churning with fiddler's tricks in Ysaye's unaccompanied Sonata No. 3 and Sarasate's "Carmen" Fantasy (the latter as a programmed encore). But there was not a hint of flashiness in these showpieces - in anything the duo did. Ysaye, a Belgian who died in 1931, sounded like updated Bach, and Carmen sounded like - well, a Carmen too classy to be dangerous.

The recital, distinguished by Bell's beauty of tone on his 1713 Stradivarius, was the first in a national tour by the duo. The program was a basket of delights. It began with Beethoven's youthful Sonata Opus 12, No. 2, whose witty questions and answers between instruments came with musical smiles and winks. Here and in two Brahms works that followed - the Sonatensatz Scherzo and the Sonata No. 3 - the playing was notable for its liberating freedom of tempo and rhythm.

If you listened for a steady beat, much of the time you couldn't find one. But so naturally did the playing follow the contours of the music that the flow seemed inherent in Brahms' expressive intent.

The early Sonatensatz (sonata movement), originally part of a three-composer sonata project initiated by Schumann, showed how Bax could subtly drive a performance by setting a propulsive rhythm. The full sonata had that kind of chaste passion that comes in Brahms' mature work. The adagio was a rare moment of beauty and repose.

Debussy's only violin sonata, coming just before "Carmen," provided the evening's center of gravity. This is not an easy work to like. Its phrases jump about, and everything about it seems unsettled.

Exactly the point. Debussy finished the piece - it was his last completed composition - in 1917, as he was dying and he saw society collapsing around him in world war. "This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war," he wrote.

The weight of the world was upon him. Bell and Bax bore that weight with lightness that only intensified its gravity.

The Mahaiwe seldom presents classical concerts on its own, relying on outside groups to do it, but if you can do only one concert a year, you can't do it, but if you can do only one concert a year. you can't do any better than this. As part of its education program, the theaterinvited a group of students to listen in as guests. .


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