When Joshua Bell was 21, he recorded an iconic piece of chamber music for piano and violin — the Sonata in A major by Cesar Franck. Today, Bell is 44 and he's recorded it again. It's on his new album, French Impressions, with pianist Jeremy Denk.
All Things Considered host Robert Siegel invited Bell to listen to his old recording for a little session of compare-and-contrast.
"Do you hear the same violinist?" Siegel asks, after playing for Bell the opening bars of his 1989 recording.
"It's not as bad as I thought it was," Bell says. "But then my next impression is, I could have done a lot more here in this harmony, and I could have followed some of the instructions in the score a little bit better."
In other words, Bell hears major differences in his playing some 22 years ago.
"This music is very subtle. There are so many beautiful harmonies that, if you indulged in every one, you'd lose the scope," he says. "And yet some of the beauty of French music is that there are moments that you don't think about the overall structure and you enjoy the beauty of that moment."
What's the relationship like between Bell and a piece like the Franck Sonata, which he's continued to play for several decades?
"I'm still the same basic human being," he says, "but I feel I know the piece so much better. I've internalized it so much more — the way it's paced. Hopefully, I'm bringing out much more nuance and more color and things I've discovered in the piece since. You're a constant student, as a musician."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The violinist Joshua Bell's new album is called "French Impressions." Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk play three sonatas: one by Camille Saint-Saens, one by Maurice Ravel and this one by Cesar Franck, who is actually Belgian but spent his life working in Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO IN A MAJOR, M.8")
SIEGEL: The Cesar Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano evidently has a very special meaning for Joshua Bell who joins us from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
JOSHUA BELL: Thank you.
SIEGEL: I'd like you to describe your connection to this 1886 composition of Cesar Franck's.
BELL: Well, it's - the Franck Sonata is one of the great pillars of the repertoire for violin and piano. Any violinist or pianist would say it's their piece, you know, but I do feel particularly close to it because I've been, well, first of all, playing it my whole life since I was 13 years old. But my first experience with it was through the eyes and filter of my teacher Josef Gingold. And Josef Gingold was a student of Eugene Ysaye. And Franck actually wrote the sonata for Ysaye who was a fellow Belgian.
And it was pretty awesome to take lessons with Gingold where he would describe how exactly he would play the Franck Sonata that was written for him, and especially considering that it was written in the 1880s. I had this direct link. I'm not claiming I had - that that means I play it better than anyone else, but it - but for me, it's a personal connection that I treasure.
SIEGEL: It's a pretty direct line of descent, actually, from the late 19th century to today.
BELL: Yeah. I call Ysaye my musical grandfather, so to speak. So...
SIEGEL: And did - you say Gingold talked to you about how, you say, he played the piece.
BELL: He did. And he would describe Ysaye his - the nuance of sound. He would imitate - well, Gingold himself had probably the most beautiful violin sound I have ever heard close up and - but he imitated the way Ysaye would express himself and almost cry through the instrument. And it was something very special. And it must have been incredibly touching to be in the room with Ysaye.
SIEGEL: As you say, you've been playing this piece almost your whole life. There was a recording you made of it back in 1989 that I owned a tape cassette of. You remember tape cassettes.
BELL: I vaguely remember those types of things.
SIEGEL: So I listened to that for years, and now I've listened to the two piece. The first recording, you must have made when you were 21, or if you made it in December, maybe you were 22. Today, you're 44. So differences between those two recordings? Do you hear the same violinist playing, or are you remarkably different to your own ear?
BELL: Personally, I haven't actually heard it for many, many, many years. It's hard to listen to one's self, you know, recordings, especially the piece that you grow with over the years, and then you think, oh, my God, why did I do that? So I think if I were to hear it, I would hear quite, well, a lot of basic things. I'm still the same human being, and a lot of things I feel the same way about. But I feel I know the piece so much better. I've internalized it so much more and the way it's paced and the way I - hopefully, I'm bringing out much more nuance and more color and things that I've discovered in the piece since.
SIEGEL: I'm going to play you a bit of the recording you made in 1989 of the Franck Sonata, and you tell me what you're hearing that isn't the way you play today.
BELL: Oh, OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, " SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO IN A MAJOR, M.8")
SIEGEL: Well, that's you at 21.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: Sounds pretty good to me.
BELL: Oh, thank you. Well, it's not as bad as I thought it was. And then my next impression was, hmm, you know, I could have done a lot more here and this harmony could have done really - followed some of the instructions in the score a little bit better.
SIEGEL: Really? You can hear real differences between them?
BELL: Oh, yeah. I mean, this music is very subtle, and you have to choose - I think there are so many beautiful harmonies that if you indulge in every one, you would lose the scope. And yet French music - some of the beauty of the French music is that there are moments where you don't think about the overall structure. And that is just - you enjoy that sheer beauty of that moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONATA FOR VIOLIN & PIANO IN A MAJOR, M.8")
BELL: Thanks for playing that. It's interesting to hear, for me, at least.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: You're saying you've learned to pick your fights more artfully now with the music (unintelligible)?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BELL: With the music, well, you're always making choice. It's all about choices. And jazzers are always used to choices, you know, in their improvisation, but it's the same in classical music. Like actors as well, you know, where to dwell, you know? To be or not to be, you got to figure out which word is the one you accent, and, you know, it's the same thing in music.
SIEGEL: The connection from Eugene Ysaye through your teacher Josef Gingold is, I mean, remarkable to be taught by a man who learned from the person for whom this was written. On the other hand, it could also be pretty intimidating to be a kid and saying, well, here's a century of greatness, passing this piece of music on to me right now. I mean, as a mature adult, do you feel that you're more in control of playing it and able to take more liberties with it as you play?
BELL: Well, I don't remember ever feeling intimidated for some reason. I think when you're performing, you have to have a certain amount of confidence and just - and on that certain point, you have to own it, the piece. And Gingold was one that really allowed me to be myself. He was not one that said, well, this is the way I did it, or this is the way you should do it. Never spoon-fed me things. He always asked what I thought. He would ask me questions rather than tell me the answers, you know, and so that gave me a kind of confidence in my own choices.
SIEGEL: The relationship between you, the artist, and the piece of music that you've performed over decades, is it something constant and steady, or are there moments of evolution when you decide after some performance, I'm going to do this differently now, I mean, I'm going to rethink that particular movement? Or does it just change very naturally without being so self-conscious about it?
BELL: Well, a lot of what happens in - and as a - we're basically evolving and learning. You're a constant student as a musician. So - and a lot of that, it just evolves naturally. But there are also moments where the light bulb goes off in your head and quantum jumps in understanding that those happen as well, and those are wonderful moments. You know, those often come after times where you feel a little bit stagnant or frustrated.
But I believe in things happening naturally. I think if you try to do something artificially or try to change your style or - very self-consciously, I think it won't be honest.
SIEGEL: But even trying that hard, it'll change because you're growing as an artist.
BELL: It does change. We all - I mean, we change anyway. I mean, as human beings, we change. We - the more experience we have in life, it all informs and is reflected in everything we do artistically.
SIEGEL: Well, Joshua Bell, thank you very much for talking with us.
BELL: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: And the album we were talking about is by Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. It's called "French Impressions."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.