French Impressions: Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk

By turns tranquil and tense, almost-too-famous sonatas are played by the duo as if for the first time.

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(Sony Classical)


One of the wonderful things about the American violinist Joshua Bell is the real humanity of his playing. In an arena that often seems divided between those virtuosic creatures born of the conservatoires, who seem to inhabit some higher plane of emotion and skill, and crossover's polished champions, desperate to be liked and dressed up to impress the masses, the Grammy-winning Bell is one of those rare musicians who transcends both camps.

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Quite apart from his astounding facility on the fiddle, he has an instinctive ability to transmit his passion, learning and understanding of music to us mortals without all the snooty traditions and over-academic programme notes (notwithstanding his appointment as music director of that esoteric ensemble the Academy of St Martin in the Fields).

In this he is a fine match with the pianist Jeremy Denk, whose sleeve notes for this album of violin sonatas, by the French impressionist composers César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns and Maurice Ravel, are written in a blog-honed style every bit as pretty, warm and witty as the music he describes. By turns delicate and powerful, tranquil and tense, intricate and sweeping, these almost-too-famous sonatas are played by the duo as if for the first time, with a sense of revelation, curiosity and resolution.

The only improvement would be the addition of another French impressionist classic, Debussy's Violin Sonata in G Minor - thus treating the listener to an extra quarter of an hour of delight.

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