They may be titled ‘French Impressions’ but none of these works are Impressionist. Rather, as Jeremy Denk almost explains in his chatty liner notes, this disc presents three diverse takes on the violin sonata that are quintessentially French. Saint-Saëns was essentially a late Classicist, heart-on-sleeve Romanticism infuses Franck’s Sonata, while Ravel’s blends jazz influences with a neo-classical outlook.
Denk identifies the use of colour as being key to the Frenchness of these pieces, and Joshua Bell is certainly not short of timbral variety in this exquisitely played recital. It even beats his compelling Franck disc of 20 years ago. The playing is more relaxed and Bell’s delicious use of portamento is achingly beautiful. He is sensitively accompanied by Denk, who has a wonderfully deft touch, captured in excellent sound.
While the scherzo section of the Saint-Saëns is coy and insouciant, the ensuing moto perpetuo is at the kind of take-no-prisoners, breakneck speed that the composer himself so loved. Unsurprisingly, Bell and Denk do not quite compel in the same way with Ravel’s moto perpetuo, but they are at home in the ‘Blues’ and the first movement’s interplay of delicate moondust and brusquer jazzy asides. In short, this is playing of the highest calibre.