Joshua Bell and friends brought their brief residency at Wigmore Hall to a fiery finale with impassioned performances of Smetana and Dvořák. These chamber pieces became virtuoso vehicles in the hands of the five musicians, with the dialogic nature of the repertoire prompting the players to spur one another on. The first half of the programme may not have been up to the same high standard, but this was still a successful and memorable collaboration. 

Joshua Bell © Eric Kabik
Joshua Bell
© Eric Kabik

Hearing a violinist lodger perform duets with his teacher, Dvořák wrote his Miniatures, Op.75a to allow himself to join them. The result is a perfectly charming set of four movements, simple yet lovely. Violist Lawrence Power's contribution was largely a supporting role, providing a firm harmonic foundation for Pamela Frank and Joshua Bell. Frank was an excellent leader, her sound burnished and viola-esque: in fact, she blended better with Power than Bell, whose sound was rather thinner than the rest of the players. Although the pieces are clearly for amateurs, Frank injected it with drama, drawing on a raw, folk-like sound for the 'Capriccio' second movement. The sinking, sighing figures of the fourth movement were tainted by slightly dubious intonation, with Bell often tending to sit slightly sharp.

Janáček's Pohádka takes a rather different perspective on a story which also inspired Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The three movements tell the tale of King Kaschei and his attempts to break up a pair of young lovers: written for cello and piano, it is hard to understand why the piece isn't performed more often. The long, singing phrases suited Steven Isserlis perfectly, while Jeremy Denk enjoyed indulging in the luscious romanticism. The scherzo and slow movements were incorporated into one, building to a soaring climax, while the jubilant finale painted the happily-ever-after with bustling piano and rustic modal harmonies.

Smetana wrote his G minor piano trio while grieving the loss of his favourite daughter. An emotional outpouring, the composer's inner turbulence is writ large: descending chromatic lament figures pervade the work, which constantly seems to seek repose. Bell's opening violin figure established the sense of relentless despair which characterised the interpretation, with Isserlis's lyrical second subject acting as a wistful reminiscence. Denk provided the driving force throughout, although his full sound often tended to conceal that of Isserlis. After the shadowy scherzo, the desperate moto perpetuo finale struggled to achieve a heroic close.

The concert concluded with Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A (Op. 81), a weighty work with a broad emotional range. This piece was where the players really connected, giving a spirited performance with melting solos and blazing climaxes. Bell's tone gained a silkiness which it had previously lacked, making for a glorious tutti sound. The Dumka second movement was both noble and elegiac, its big gestures belying the size of the ensemble, while the jovial third movement was a light-hearted romp. The intensity gradually mounted throughout the finale, with a sudden eruptions and fugato sections letting out some of the tension. An electric end to a fine performance.