The moment the first chord rang out in the Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall Monday night, the audience caught their breath. Opening with Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F Major, violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Sky Ingram and Barnaby Rea © Clive Barda
Sky Ingram and Barnaby Rea
© Clive Barda

Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F Major was performed with a controlled frenzy throughout. The themes in violin and piano were both dangerously fast, but one could still hear every last note, crisp and clean. Bell’s stamina and energy remained high even in the latter half of the performance, as he attacked Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata in D Minor, "Ballade", Op.27 no.3 mercilessly. Dominated by a multitude of expressive musical effects, including double and triple-stops and polyphonic passages, Ysaÿe’s sonata is cumbersome to say the least. But despite its harrowing sound, Bell gave a stirring performance. Whether it was broad, romantic gestures or short ‘snap’ rhythms, Ysaÿe’s sonata was expertly interpreted.

More than a showcase performance for Joshua Bell, Monday night’s concert revealed an evocative pairing between the piano and the violin. Asserting the darkness and intensity that runs deep in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30 no. 2, Bell and Haywood engaged in an intimate conversation throughout each of the four movements. This exchange was perfectly clear in the second movement (Adagio cantabile), when Haywood played delicate, almost muted staccato notes underneath Bell’s long, breathy lines. Here, both instruments recalled the dramatic themes from the first movement but with brighter, warmer tones. Haywood and Bell proved particularly versatile when they erupted out of the playful, fleeting scherzo in the third movement to the rumbling intensity of the final Allegro.

Unlike Beethoven’s heady tones, audiences were swept up in the ebullient, undulating themes of César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major. Still, there was a weighty feel to Frank’s music that Bell and Haywood captured perfectly; the entire piece felt meditative yet urgent. This striking musical contrast is something Franck purposely inserted into his A major sonata, which he dedicated to Eugène Ysaÿe. And in the second movement particularly, with both the piano and violin parts propelling each other forward, Haywood and Bell gave an honorable nod to both Franck and Ysaÿe.

From start to finish, Bell and Haywood had audiences begging for more, even after the encore, which was Bell’s arrangement of Fryderyk Chopin’s Nocturne no. 20 in C sharp minor. But as audiences left the hall, they all breathed a satisfied sigh of relief. Monday night was certainly Carnegie Hall at its best.