Why Is Ravel's Violin Sonata like a Croissandwich?

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
January 11, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk have been performing together for about seven years. Bell says a good working duo is something like a good marriage. You want to work with someone who has a similar ideology, but not someone who is exactly like you. "You want a certain amount of resistance that you can play off of and learn from," he explains, "and yet you want to share basic ideals." You might say their latest release is the result of a seven-year itch, because that's how long it's taken them to finally record these "French Impressions," by Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck and Maurice Ravel. Each sonata has become part of their regular repertoire.

Jeremy Denk says they probably play the Saint-Saens sonata the most. Bell agrees. "Yeah, that's true, and that's the one we probably talk about the least because it's not as well known. But it's an amazing piece, an incredibly exciting piece with a beautiful scherzo that I think rivals Mendelssohn's scherzo. It's elegant, and fun, and witty.

"It's wonderful the way the waltz in the scherzo becomes kind of a chorale," Jeremy Denk adds, "and they get woven together and then there's this sort of wonderful moment of wondering what's going to happen and then the explosion of the last movement. Audiences respond to that piece in an incredible way."

"What's neat about this music," according to Bell, "is just the amount of colors one needs — the palette of colors is just so extensive. It's not just one French sound. You need to develop a palette that's extensive and by using your bow in different ways you can create so many different kinds of sound. For instance the opening of the Franck is ethereal, and one has to ease into the sound in a way. You have to create magic, some kind of magic right at the beginning, which is not easy."

Joshua Bell has been playing Cesar Franck's Sonata in A major since he was about 12 years old. He has a very special connection to this beloved masterpiece. "The piece was written for one of the greatest violinists who ever lived, Eugene Ysaye. In the 1880s, Ysaye was a huge figure in the music world, particularly in Paris. And many great composers wrote for him, including Franck, and Franck wrote this sonata for Ysaye. Well it turns out many years later in the 1920s, my teacher, Josef Gingold, studied with him. Gingold was a very young man and Ysaye was at the end of his career and his life and Gingold was his protégé. And then cut to 60 years later, I was a student of Gingold. So I feel connected to Ysaye, which is pretty awesome."

Jeremy Denk says this composer has a very unique voice and he wasn't afraid to explore extremes. "The violin sonata has this feeling — this very spiritually charged battle between elements of light and dark in a way. It's a piece of great ambition and unbelievable success."

Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Piano closes out this recording. While the Saint-Saens and Franck sonatas come from the beginning of the golden age of Impressionism in Paris in the late 19th century, the Ravel Sonata was written near the end of this period. "It's Ravel's homage to the blues, seen through the prism of Ravel's mind," explains Joshua Bell. "He managed to get the essence of the blues and put it inside his music."

"My friend Bruce Adolphe calls it a croissandwich," says Jeremy Denk, "because it's an American form, refracted through French. It's about a certain experience of the blues, seen with a little bemusement and a little tiny bit of satire and a great deal of tenderness. It's a great French picture of an American art form bursting onto the scene." Part of the charm of the piece is that the composer asks the musicians to play in two different keys simultaneously. "Yeah, first there's the joke of [being] sort of offbeat to the pizzicatos." explains Denk, "You have an interesting rhythm, right, and then suddenly sneaking in, very Pink Pantherish, there's this A-flat fifth in the bass." "And then I come in with a tune that's sounds a lot like (Gershwin's), 'Summertime,' adds Bell.

Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell have been successful chamber music partners for the past seven years because they share similar ideals, and because they challenge one another. They also have to be good listeners. That's what provides the inspiration to perform these pieces over and over again, yet find something new and fresh to offer listeners each time.

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