Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Joshua Bell (“conductor & concertmaster”)
Recorded 15-17 May 2012 in Air Lyndhurst Studios, London
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL 88765 44881-2 Duration: 72 minutes Reviewed: March 2013
Beethoven Symphonies 4 & 7/Joshua Bell & Academy of St Martin in the Fields [Sony Classical]
Reviewed by Antony Hodgson
To begin his Beethoven symphony cycle with Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell approaches numbers 4 and 7 with a clear view of their architecture; he eschews ancient performing traditions but also avoids the modern trend which often ties itself to the metronome marks that Beethoven added to his scores late in life. Bell’s tempos are persuasive – each movement seems comfortable at his chosen speeds which are generally slower than those common in recent times although in both finales he does approach the ferocious nature of Beethoven’s demanding instructions – the finale of No.4 is certainly not as moderate as Allegro non troppo indicates but the metronome mark is one of those that does make sense. There can be an inbuilt fear concerning the solo bassoonist in this movement but this fiendish passage is played with skill and accuracy.
The relatively small orchestra sounds full-bodied, and balance is natural and consistent. Bell does not particularly stress Beethoven’s changes of colour but achieves a homogeneous sound. Timpanist Adrian Bending, joins the ASMF in a slightly more 19th-century style – strong and imaginative but without the ‘military’ overtones he sometimes brings to Haydn’s music. In fact, throughout, orchestral blend is very convincing, especially regarding strings and woodwinds, although the horn parts are not brought forward as boldly as is sometimes the case – but I am under the strong impression that we hear exactly the balance that was achieved in the studio.
There is no expressive fussing with speed but this is not to say that tempos are rigid – there are moments when Bell does make inflections to underline a point – for example there is a passage in the first movement of No.4 where a long, quiet drum-roll underpins mysterious fragments prior to an exciting climax and here the tempo is held back for dramatic effect. There is also a flexible approach to the close of the slow movement. By contrast, in the first movement of No.7 where so many conductors shift about according to the dramatic feeling of the moment, Bell holds to a regular pulse at a convincing speed. Comparing for reference two especially notable alternative recordings, Bell is a little slower than Carlos Kleiber but a little faster than Franz Konwitschny. In the following Allegretto the regularity of pulse justifies the choice of a tempo which is below the metronome instruction although still faster than most performances of a generation ago.
In the scherzo of No.7, full marks for repeating the second half of the trio on the first time round but not, however, reprising it on the trio’s second appearance; this parallels the contour of Beethoven’s fully written-out second appearance of the scherzo section. Felix Weingartner wrote about this matter and made it clear what the composer intended; it is amazing how many other conductors seem to observe or to omit repeats in this movement at random. In parallel with Bell’s keen sense of musical proportion he observes all repeats in both symphonies.
This is a fine orchestra sounding larger than usual without having increased its standard number of players. Although they number only two, the double basses are ideally strong. It is not clear why Joshua Bell directs from the violin, sitting at the leader’s desk, rather than conducting (he does not mention it in his booklet note) but this is of no consequence because ensemble is immaculate and inner parts are defined with great clarity.