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For the Love of Brahms - New Classical Tracks with Joshua Bell

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New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Joshua Bell.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT -  Violinist Joshua Bell. You probably know him as a soloist. He's also a conductor, who's beginning his fifth season as the music director with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. "I'm just loving these days," Bell says, "getting to make my way through the Beethoven symphonies and directing the sixth for the first time in January. I love doing those things."

Joshua Bell also loves working with two of his closest friends, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk. On their latest collaboration, they unite with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to celebrate their love of Johannes Brahms. "I know the title, For the Love of Brahms, may be a little corny but it's kind of a double meaning in a way," Bell says. "For our love of Brahms - Steven Isserlis and I have played the Double Concerto so many times over the years, we finally wanted to record it. And Jeremy Denk - we all just love Brahms."

Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell
Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell Lisa Marie Mazzucco

You said that you, Steven and Jeremy all just love Brahms. What it is that you love about this composer?

"Oooh, how do you put that into words?" Bell muses. "He just goes for that depth, there's never anything frivolous. It's beautiful but also structured in the way … like Beethoven has that kind of amazing overall architecture and structure which is so admirable … see, I'm having a hard time putting it into words! How do you describe what you love about a composer like that?

"The early Brahms Trio is interesting because I actually didn't know of its existence until maybe seven or eight years ago in this form until Steven told me about it," Bell continues. "Because I'd known the Opus 8 Trio in its revised form - early Brahms but revised by later Brahms. And this early version has a little bit less of that perfect architecture. It's a little more raw, a little more impetuous. And more reflective of a 20- or a 21-year-old Brahms. And I found it fascinating to hear that side of Brahms, really heart on sleeve. And I fell in love with that version and that's why I wanted to record it.

Joshua Bell and Steve Isserlis have been performing Brahms double concerto for violin and cello the past 30 years. It's an iconic work that has been binding friendships since it was first written 150 years ago. "Brahms was so connected to Joachim for so many years," Bell explains, "but somewhere along the line, toward the later part of their lives, they had a falling out. But I guess at some point Brahms probably thought to himself, 'This is ridiculous. Let's mend our fences.' And his way of doing it was to write this piece for Joachim, this double concerto with unusually two soloists in a concerto which was not done very often, certainly not in the Romantic era. And so you see these two, the cello and the violin you know fighting or sometimes finishing each other's sentences and sometimes you can feel this sort of offering of love and friendship in the piece - you can really feel that."

Cellist Steven Isserlis
Cellist Steven Isserlis Satoshi Aoyagi

In addition to these two major works, Bell features the slow movement from Schumann's violin concerto. "It really is one of those desert island pieces that I think is just such a gem," he says. "I first learned the violin concerto in my 20s and recorded it … along with the Brahms concerto. But I've always loved this piece and the gem is this incredible slow movement. A couple of years ago, Steven told me he found in some library some version of it that includes a coda of Benjamin Britten. I guess Benjamin Britten loved the piece too and wanted to play it I think at a funeral for a friend and he put his own coda at the end so it could be sort of … play it as a complete work. No one seems to know about it, I'd never heard of it … I thought it would be neat to include it on this album."

Since first meeting Steven Isserlis at the Spoleto Music Festival 30 years ago, Joshua Bell says their friendship making music together has really nurtured their friendship. "He's an incredible musician, uncompromising," Bell says. "There's no holding back, he's really in the moment and inside a piece like a great actor being inside the role, you always feel that in Steven. And it's inspiring. And the very same quality in Jeremy Denk. It's one of the reasons why I've been playing recitals with him for many years. He's just so committed on stage. He gives really everything he has."

And, as you might imagine, Joshua Bell's colleagues and friends, express the same sentiment about him.