Joshua Bell plays Max Bruch – Scottish Fantasy & Violin Concerto No.1 – Academy of St Martin in the Fields [Sony Classical]

3 of 5 stars

Scottish Fantasy, Op.46 – Fantasia for the violin with orchestra and harp, freely using Scottish folk melodies
Violin Concerto No.1 in G-minor, Op.26

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Joshua Bell (violin & director)

Recorded 8 & 9 September 2017 at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London NW3

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: June 2018
Duration: 56 minutes



Joshua Bell has been here before, recording Max Bruch’s G-minor Violin Concerto thirty years ago with this orchestra, Neville Marriner conducting. Now Bell is going it alone, violin bow sometimes acting as conductor’s baton, but essentially trusting the guys and gals of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields to be the most loyal of companions, which of course they are.

Bell’s current take on Bruch No.1 (placed second on the disc) is without tricks or indulgence, and if one may nit-pick the occasional phrase or touch then we may have different ones, or none at all. It’s a perfectly good account – lively, heartfelt and not routine – of a great piece that is over-weighted with recordings and performances (exacerbated by the lack of same for Bruch’s two subsequent Concertos, both of which are sovereign creations).

The recorded sound is less favourable though – the acoustic is too reverberant, several seconds of it, causing mush in the loudest tuttis and excessive brightness in treble registers, not least regarding Bell’s violin (a handicap when this instrument is the star turn), somewhat rescued if the volume is considerably turned down from a transfer level that, with the amplifier set to normal, renders the reproduction as harsh; and with such a competitive catalogue for this work the sonic aspect (whether actual or engineered, in every sense of the latter word, i.e. reverberation added in post-production) has to be considered as important as the musical matters, and here conspires against yet-another version of this perennial favourite; at least Bell is integrated to the orchestra but can be swelled to seem dominating, with edgy timbre, the ASMF less-than-present, backwards in placement, at times.

The Scottish Fantasy is given top (and only) billing on the cover, Bruch’s wonderful survey of indigenous tunes. Bell brings considerable flair and soulfulness to it, and enjoyment, and the recording is (or seems) more agreeable, or I had got somewhat used to it (I listened to the Concerto first). Bell’s many fans won’t and needn’t hesitate, but, leaving aside temporarily the greats of yesteryear in this repertoire (Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh…), then to the general collector, and in bigger-picture terms, there is always Jack Liebeck’s stylish and far-better-recorded complete Bruch survey for Hyperion.

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