Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall – Bach BWV1041 & Beethoven Septet and Symphony 7

Bach
Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV1041
Beethoven
Septet in E flat, Op.20
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

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

Joshua Bell (violin), Robert Smissen (viola), Stephen Orton (cello), Lynda Houghton (double bass), James Burke (clarinet), Graham Sheen (bassoon) & Stephen Stirling (horn) [Septet]


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 14 October, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Eric KabikLike Saturday’s Child, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields certainly works hard for a living, as a look at its schedule for just this year proves in sobering terms. With great canniness and even greater application, this chamber orchestra has ridden the turbulence of the past fifty years in the classical music world – for starters, the erosion of the recording industry’s once-unassailable sovereignty, and the irresistible rise of the period-instrument brigade – and is still smiling. Its vast recording legacy – just consider the massive and lucrative exposure the soundtrack for the film of Amadeus brought – is sampled on music radio stations round the globe, and international touring continues apace.

It’s remarkable that the ASMF has maintained its benchmark status for five decades, and it has certainly made the right choice in Joshua Bell to take over as music director from Sir Neville Marriner (90 next April and still working hard) – he has brought an American can-do glamour and his impeccable musicianship to continue the ASMF’s eternal youth. Bell launched his third Season with J. S. Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto, a first-among-equals work that suits the Academy’s original conductor-less manifesto. The sound here was less period-inflected than in Beethoven, Bell’s playing characteristically bright and brilliant in the vigorous first movement, romantically pared down in the ravishing Andante, with tightly upholstered timbre from the ASMF’s strings cleverly enclosing and releasing the solo line.

I must say, pleasant as it is, that Beethoven’s Septet is a tiny bit boring as a concert item. It’s classical easy-listening, and its divertimento style diverts for quite a long time – its six movements last around 40 minutes. The predominant violin and clarinet leads were suavely played, and there were some cameos from the other players – a particularly jolly horn solo pepped up the scherzo – but it’s still music you can do something else to rather than venerate – even if it is by Beethoven.

The ASMF’s thrill-seeking, gutsy performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony rather proved the point – it compelled attention and didn’t relax its hold for a moment. With minimum vibrato from strings and edgy, raw exposure from horns and trumpets, you could hear that the players have assimilated much in the way of ‘period’ practice, backed up by some vivid attack. I suspect the tight cohesion had more to do with beady eye-contact within the orchestra than on Bell’s gesticulating bow direction, but it still resulted in a rhythmically vehement finale of white-knuckle engagement, and the eloquently spectral Allegretto rippled with attentive detail.

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