Bruce Hodges hears the performance of Chopin (arr.Milstein), Vieuxtemps, Chausson and Brahms at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall on 16 February 2024 


Joshua Bell. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Perhaps the sweetest moment in Joshua Bell’s trio of desserts was his encore, when he announced that he would play with Philadelphia Orchestra principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen, who was a classmate at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Together they offered an arrangement by Nathan Milstein of Chopin’s Nocturne no.20 in C sharp minor op.posth., which worked effortlessly – touchingly – in the altered instrumentation.

Before that – provoking the audience reaction that prompted the encore in the first place – was a bravura reading of Vieuxtemps’s Violin Concerto no.5, a rarity, at least in the US. Cast in three movements that are played without pause, the work offers operatic drama for the soloist – especially a lengthy, storybook cadenza at the end of the first movement, which Bell navigated with a novelist’s focus and occasional snatches of fire. He and Christoph Eschenbach seemed entirely at one in their outlook, buoyed by the resplendent orchestra.

Bell began his half of the afternoon with Chausson’s Poème, which fully exploited the mellifluous tone of his 1713 ‘Huberman’ Stradivari, especially in the idyllic solo sequences. After the interval came Brahms’s First Symphony, with Eschenbach coaxing faster tempos in some places, and associate concertmaster Christine Lim on rapturous form in the solos. For those moments when Brahms asks a single violin to take flight over the ensemble, Lim soared like a dove.