Camaraderie and energy marked Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood’s duo performance in Helzberg Hall on Saturday night, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.
Violinist Bell has the celebrity, with his iconic performance style, virtuosic abilities and highly publicized accomplishments (his treasured violin is older than the United States). Yet pianist Haywood wasn’t just an accompanist, but rather an equal collaborator with a gentlemanly demeanor.
Fully attuned to each other while playing, at the end of each piece they shared a friendly handshake before turning to the crowd for deferential bows to acknowledge the applause.
The program featured a selection of primarily Romantic-era works, repertoire stalwarts that allowed for dramatic interpretations. Bell’s workaday stage presence changed to one of confidence and flair when he brought the violin under his chin.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano was an elated opening. The performers seemed to jump simultaneously toward the line as they exchanged thematic fragments. They used every dynamic option to the fullest, pushing each other in a playful partnership while exploring the work’s potential. Bell’s face flashed a disheartened expression, though, when an errant ringtone marred the final release.
A youthful Edvard Grieg wrote his Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano with a naïve, nationalistic bent. The work has dual natures, conveying both windswept introspection and frenetic outpouring, with quick emotional shifts and intensive fiddling as the voices chase each other.
Similarly, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 offered engaging variety with its rubato exchanges. Descending droplet patterns underscored a rich, hymn-like melody, and Haywood’s exquisite touch complemented Bell’s translucent tone and balanced double stops.
Lastly, and in stark comparison, was Béla Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1 “Folk Dances.” A resounding drone broke through with relished harshness, a different timbre pulled from the depths of the violin. Harmonics turned from squeal to sweet. Bell snapped pizzicati distinctly, a contrast to the full-bodied bowing. Rhythms skipped off-kilter, changing with disjointed deliberateness.
The two encores were the only time Haywood was relegated to secondary status. In an arrangement of Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Bell absconded with the melodic line, playing the long, deceptively simple phrases with heartfelt vibrato and leaving Haywood to emphasize chords. Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 1” continued the Gypsy-esque characteristics of the earlier pieces. The rustic theme gradually became more technical, with a spirited acceleration that finished with both men raising their arms with a flourish.