Joshua Bell is perhaps now more familiar to Barbican audiences in his role as Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields than he is as a soloist, and his recital outings are relatively rare these days. He has been performing with pianist Sam Haywood for around ten years, since they met through mutual friend Steven Isserlis, with whom Haywood also regularly performs.

Joshua Bell © Richard Ashcroft
Joshua Bell
© Richard Ashcroft

They presented us with an intelligent and engaging programme, consisting of three substantial sonatas, none of which could be said to be standard crowd-pleasing fare. This was a chamber music programme worthy of Wigmore Hall, and showy pyrotechnics were saved for the encores. We might have longed for a touch of the latter venue’s acoustic here, but Bell clearly knows the Barbican well, and managed to create a tone able to fill the space. Their Beethoven had spark and delicate simplicity, whilst their Prokofiev was full of bite and foot-stomping rhythms. But the Grieg was the real treat. Most likely the least known of the trio of sonatas on offer, it deserves to be so much more familiar, and Bell and Hayward’s passionate performance was a delight.

Often overlooked as the poor relation to its “Spring” Sonata partner, Beethoven's Violin Sonata no. 4 in A minor has an opening movement combining intense drama with a lyrical second subject that provides the only moment of repose. The central movement combines the role of Scherzo and slow movement in one, and it's delicate simplicity gives the violin the chance to sing, which Bell took, as well as demonstrating precision in its filigree decoration. Bell and Hayward launched attacca into the finale, and Bell dashed off its frenzied virtuosity before the movement subsided with its surprising quiet finish.

Prokofiev's Violin Sonata no. 2 in D major started life in 1942 as a flute sonata, but didn't really take off in the repertoire, so a year later, at the encouragement of David Oistrakh, Prokofiev transcribed it for violin. The transcription is expert, with Prokofiev introducing idiomatic touches for the violin including double-stopping, left hand pizzicato and harmonics. Right from the opening, it has a quirkiness and rhythmic energy, and Bell and Haywood bounced the rhythms with style. Other than a momentary mistiming at the end of the lively Scherzo, the two players were on top of Prokofiev's demands throughout. The Andante provides moments of lyrical calm, although Bell and Haywood also enjoyed the darkly twirling harmonies that surge below the surface, and Bell took flight with the circus acrobatics of the finale.

Full of Grieg’s unmistakeable Norwegian folk-inspired flavours (Niels Gade thought it to be “too Norwegian”), his Violin Sonata no. 2 in G major is also a work of plentiful melodic invention and lyrical warmth, written whilst on his honeymoon in 1867. There are hints of Hardanger fiddle in the droning opening fifths that crop up in the outer movements, bouncy folk-like themes in the opening movement, a straightforwardly beautiful central slow movement, and an impulsive, lively finale. Bell had a lightness of touch here, and became more and more mobile as he embraced Grieg’s dance rhythms. Hayward matched Bell’s lightness in the balletic pianissimo exchanges in the first movement, and his rippling downward runs in the finale were delightfully watery.

They concluded their programme with not one but three encores. The first of Clara Schumann's Three Romances, Op. 22 (Andante molto) was a delight, with Haywood's limpid opening supporting Bell's beautifully silky tone in the lusciously romantic, sinuous melody. By way of contrast, Joachim's arrangement of Brahms' Hungarian Dance no. 1 in G minor gave Bell the chance to demonstrate playfulness and panache, whilst the fireworks of Wieniawski's Scherzo-Tarantella, aside from its brief lyrical central section, was an extraordinary demonstration of Bell's phenomenal virtuosic abilities, and a fine crowd pleasing conclusion to the evening.