New Classical Tracks®

New Classical Tracks: Bach and Bell

New Classical Tracks: Joshua Bell, 'Bach'


October 08, 2014
joshua bell bach
Joshua Bell, 'Bach'.
© 2014 Sony Masterworks.

Joshua Bell - Bach (Sony Masterworks)

As Joshua Bell was growing up in Bloomington, Ind., his introduction to music came in large part by way of Johann Sebastian Bach. He would hear his mother and sisters play Bach Inventions on the piano. His father, a former Episcopal priest, worshipped in his own way to recordings of Bach's B Minor Mass. And Joshua Bell made his first public performance with an orchestra at the age of seven, performing a Bach violin concerto. Now, at age 46, Joshua Bell is finally doing something that might surprise you.

"Basically this is my first Bach album, though I guess I've made 40 albums in the last 30 years," Bell admits. "But I finally felt ready to do something, to do a record with Bach. I found the right collaboration with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and felt ready for it and really enjoyed it so much."

For his first Bach recording, Joshua Bell starts with Bach's Violin Concertos No. 1 and 2. Then Joshua Bell does something rather unconventional. He features an arrangement of an arrangement of Bach's Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 — music originally written for unaccompanied violin.

"Well, someday I will record the solo sonatas and partitas I hope in the original form and in the way they should be recorded. But I thought it would be fun on this album, with the two concertos that have been recorded so many times before, to do something different to add to the album. An idea that I had was to do the Chaconne but to do it with an accompaniment. This was something that was done in the 19th century with piano. Mendelssohn wrote his homage to the Chaconne by writing a piano improvisation and so did Schumann. So I chose the Mendelssohn and had it orchestrated to play along with the ASMF. I thought it would be an interesting take on the Chaconne. Turned out better than I could have expected.

"I did the same treatment with the Gavotte from the E major partita — I used Schumann's accompaniment because Schumann wrote piano accompaniment to all the partitas and sonatas. It's something a little different on this Bach album."

Joshua Bell starts every day by playing Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. He knows these works inside and out, so as you might imagine, playing these new arrangements posed its own challenges. "It was quite disconcerting because you're not used to hearing these counterpoints that were not written by Bach — that were in the imagination of Mendelssohn, for instance. With the solo Chaconne, Bach couldn't write every harmony. A lot of it is left to your imagination — you're supposed to fill it in with your brain. Well, Mendelssohn, with the orchestra accompaniment, can fill in all kinds of things. It's very different. In some ways, at certain places, it adds drama and richness — sort of in a 19th century way, but the beauty of Bach still comes through."

Through Bach's music, Joshua Bell believes that each of us is given a glimpse of the essence of life itself. If you really want to hear the soul of Bach, Bell suggests you listen to the slow movements of the violin concertos, or the popular Air on the G string from Bach's Orchestral Suite in D major.

"The Air on the G string — which is not really on the G string — it's one of the most beautiful pieces in all of classical music," says Bell. "I think there's a reason it's played so often at weddings and funerals. That's the thing about Bach. You can do it at either one of them. That's the sheer beauty and heaven … it can go either way. It's the most beautiful music I can think of."

It may have taken Joshua Bell more than 30 years to make his first Bach recording, but it was worth the wait.