Some couples were driven apart by being cooped up together (incidents of domestic abuse increased) while some bonded more closely together.  Classical music couple violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larisa Martínez used the time together while barred from performing publicly to explore musical collaboration at home.

The couple (who met in 2011 and married in 2019) started pairing up for home musicales searching out and performing compositions that pair the soprano voice with the violin.  Their explorations of this repertoire yielded several musical discoveries that they shared with the public at a joint recital presented at the 92nd Street Y on October 20.  Collaborative “multimedia” pianist Peter Dugan accompanied both on the keyboard.

Bell is well-established as one of his generation’s preeminent violin virtuosos.  His Puerto-Rican born wife is less familiar to the public, though she is certainly charming and accomplished.  Martínez and Bell alternated vocal pieces with violin obbligato with soprano and violin solos supported by piano.  Unfamiliar and obscure works alternated with classical and popular chestnuts.

The evening began with a rarity: a Mendelssohn concert aria in Italian “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro” from Infelice (text by Metastasio).  The piece has some similarities to Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido!” Cecilia Bartoli has recorded this concert scena with Maxim Vengerov on her Maria Malibran album and Bell and Martínez have also recorded it.

Exquisitely gowned and coiffed, Ms. Martínez offered a soprano that is is collected and precise with good passage work.  Her voice is high-placed and nimble suitable for light coloratura repertoire.  However, one senses that the tone is narrowly focused in such a way that maximizes placement but minimizes tonal warmth.  Head resonance rules at the expense of warmer resonance in the mask giving the sound brightness but little depth.

Her timbre can be pallid in the middle register and faint in the lower register.  The natural vibrato and lush timbre of Latin Hispanic singers (for one example Nadine Sierra) is absent.  Ms. Martínez also lacked a defined trill.  I am also not sure about the size of her voice, especially in a large concert hall with orchestra,  but her keenly focused soprano sounded just right for the intimate 92nd Street Y auditorium.

Mr. Bell’s violin obbligato (composed for Malibran’s common law husband violinist Charles de Bériot) in the Mendelssohn sounded rather perfunctory initially but that changed over the course of the evening.  Bell was simultaneously soulful and a klezmer-inflected virtuoso in Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” from Baal Shem.

Bell ravished the ears and the soul with a violin transcription of Chopin’s “Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2” (arr. Bell/Wallace).

He then proceeded to knock our socks off with Wienawski’s showpiece “Scherzo-Tarantelle, Op. 16” mentioning in his introduction that he hoped he could still play it as fast as he did when he was a twelve year-old pupil of Josef Gingold, who in turn was a pupil of the legendary Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe.  I don’t know how fast the pre-pubescent Bell played it but it was certainly fast enough and showed no diminution of technique.

As solo performer, Ms. Martínez gave us Manon’s “Je suis encore tout étourdie” from the Massenet opera and the familiar faux boléro “Les Filles des Cadix” by Delibes.  There have been more vocally sensual Manons but the Delibes had both precision and panache.

The espagnolerie of Delibes was followed by two authentically Spanish numbers: the “Zapateado” by Gerónimo Gimenez from the zarzuela La Tempranica, and a song by Puerto-Rican composer Narciso Figueroa “Mi Rancho.”  Here again I missed the Latin bright/dark sound in Ms. Martínez’s voice.  Her cool girlish timbre is better suited to French repertoire than Italian or Spanish/Latin American.

The soprano throughout maintained a rather restrained, dutiful performing manner suggestive of an advanced student afraid of a negative score from a judge or teacher.  Whereas her husband surrenders himself to and is in command of his material, the wife is an accomplished executant.

In collaboration both performers got even more intriguing with a coloratura soprano solo “Jours de mon enfance” from Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs.   The soprano’s coolly precise and agile singing and Mr. Bell’s violin mastery combined to illuminate an obscure but beguiling showpiece from a forgotten composer and opera.

Richard Strauss’ “Morgen!” sounded even more beautiful with Mr. Bell’s violin introduction of the moody, nostalgic opening theme and Martínez brought an ethereal quality to the vocal line (without the vocal richness of other famous singers I could name but won’t).

The evening finished with an arrangement for voice and violin of Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite (arr. Brohn/Czarnecki) featuring both violinist and soprano in highlights from the musical.  Someone in the audience vocally objected to Ms. Martínez’s rendition of “I Feel Pretty” but otherwise both performers brought their most appealing qualities to this pastiche.  Often, as in the “Tonight” section, Mr. Bell’s violin was the “Tony” to Martínez’s “Maria”.  Their easy chemistry was evident throughout the evening.

The event was an evocation of a lost social ritual – the home chamber performance or musicale – a remnant of a lost time before records, radio, cd’s and Spotify when people had to create their own musical entertainment in the privacy of their homes for their friends or just themselves.

The whole program is available on demand here.

Photo: Shervin Lainez