Isn’t it funny how some of the world’s most exciting sounds get lumped into a category with the most boring name? And who would have thought there would be such a mighty upsurge in chamber music in 2020? With established concert venues padlocked and imperiled – outside of Sweden, Moscow and Nicaragua, anyway – intimate performances largely by and for family and friends have become the new paradigm in classical music, at least until the lockdown is over.
And in keeping with the zeitgeist, some of the biggest names in the field are making intimate recordings. None other than Joshua Bell has made a diverse and often electrifying new live album, At Home with Music, streaming at Spotify. Although virtually all of it is arrangements of standard repertoire, the violinist seems especially amped to play it.
He opens with the famous first movement from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, jauntily trading riffs with pianist Jeremy Denk. The two play it fast: in their most animated moments, the lack of digital separation between the instruments enhances the carefree energy.
Peter Dugan takes over the piano, joining Bell for a much more rubato, Romantic take of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B minor. Bell’s rise from silken vibrato to raw, Romany intensity is unselfconsciously electrifying, a real crowd-pleaser.
Next, he teams up with soprano Larisa Martínez and pianist Kamal Khan for a somewhat understatedly lyrical take of Mendelssohn’s “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro” from the opera Infelice. They return to tackle a Puccini aria later on.
The rare treat here is Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major, Op. 4, with Dugan back on piano, both musicians digging in hard for its anthemic leaps, slashes and devious dips. Their remarkably steady, unvarnished take of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 makes a good segue, quiet as it generally is. And hearing Bell revel in the virtuoso ornamentation of the Jascha Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime is an expected thrill.
Martínez and Khan return for the closer, an alternately bracing and warmly familiar medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. with a triumphant coda.