One could sense expectation, excitement and trepidation before the start of Tuesday's performance at Carnegie Hall. A packed Stern Auditorium was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see and hear two great artists – each having their enthusiastic, unwavering legion of supporters – in a rare collaboration. With Joshua Bell's penchant for 19th- and early-20th century repertoire and with Daniil Trifonov embracing a broader body of works, but still a Romantic at heart, the programme didn't include any big surprises. 

Daniil Trifonov and Joshua Bell
© Fadi Kheir

The only exception was Bloch's rarely played Nigun, from his Baal Shem Suite. This evocative composition enabled the violinist to convey a broad spectrum of emotions, ranging from sorrow and longing to ecstatic joy. As he performed atop the piano's scaffolding support, Bell artfully unfurled a series of swirling volutes, with each one surpassing the previous in rhapsodic intensity, expressiveness achieved with little posturing.

Immediately following Bruch’s touching paean to Jewish religious music, the evening’s most widely known piece, César Franck’ Violin Sonata in A major, was also performed with restrained showmanship. Sharing here more equally the technically challenging soloistic burden and paying great attention to the perpetual metamorphosis of recurrent motifs, Bell and Trifonov offered a version of this unquestionable masterpiece that was marked by great fluidity. The soundscape was often more redolent of Debussy’s idiom than of a Brahmsian, late romantic one. From pensive to bravura moments, Bell shaped every phrase in wonderful colours, with exquisite articulation. Trifonov’s piano ebbed and flowed with Bell’s violin, with near flawless mirroring. In the Recitativo-Fantasia, both interpreters seemed to carefully and lovingly tend to a flower that was hesitantly blooming. In the Finale, the sinuous progression from the delicate canon to the affirmative last bars was electrifying.

The recital started less convincingly with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in D major. In the initial Allegro con brio, even if the rhythmic synchronicity was never in doubt, a discrepancy between Bell’s ebullience, with all those underlined accents, and Trifonov’s more interiorised approach to music-making, was clearly discernible. Their collaboration improved with the second movement, its lyrical theme delicately woven by the piano, and its tempestuous third variation. In the jovial Rondo, Trifonov and Bell showcased Beethoven’s innovative approach, already manifested in this early work: the enhanced independence given to the violin; the surprising modulations to distant keys; the sense of closure brought by references to the opening movement.

Arguably, the recital’s highlight was an outstanding rendition of Prokofiev’s mostly gloomy and anguished First Violin Sonata. Effortlessly overcoming the technical challenges, Bell and Trifonov successfully brought forward the unresolved ambiguities of a score trying to dress modernist trends in classical clothing, constantly fluctuating between lyrical tenderness and visceral gestures. The violin’s muted runs and pizzicatos (the composer compared them to “wind passing through a graveyard”) sounded heartbreaking. The Andante’s haunting melody conveyed a similarly distressing impression, especially when played in unison by the violin and the pianist’s left hand, while his right hand spun dreamy semiquavers. The Allegro brusco, alternately demonic and eerie, recalled reminiscences of the composer's opera The Fiery Angel. Exquisite rhythmic interplay between violin and piano was the main feature of the Finale.

There were two well-prepared encores. A lyrical and subdued rendition of Clara Schumann’s Romanze Op. 22 no.1 was followed by an energetic Hungarian Dance by Brahms, as transcribed for violin and piano by Joseph Joachim.