Joshua Bell’s first album of sonatas since he signed with Sony in 1996 is also, after seven years playing with Jeremy Denk as accompanist, Bell’s first recording with him. Despite the title, none of this music is Impressionist — even Ravel’s Sonata is more jazz. But it’s nice to hear the Ravel alongside pieces other than the usual Debussy (an excellent Sarah Chang album offers the same program as Bell’s).
Others have found more depth and drama in Franck’s Sonata, but in terms of sheer beauty it’s hard to beat Bell and his rich, plummy tone. He milks this mighty opus for all it’s worth without taking immoderately slow tempos to do so. It’s his second recording of the work; the first was released in 1989, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Compared to Denk, Thibaudet is more poetic, has a more beautiful sound, and is better balanced with the violin, but compared to 1989 Bell, 2012 Bell is a far more polished player.
The most vivid interpretation here is the Ravel, as Bell really digs into its jazz- and blues-inspired inflections (no surprise if you’ve heard him get rootsy with Edgar Meyer). Opening with the Sonata No. 1 by Saint-Saens makes for an apt stylistic arc.