Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall – Beethoven & Brahms

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 March, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Lisa Marie MazzuccoIn terms of fit the Academy of St Martin in the Fields looks and sounds good in Cadogan Hall. In terms of relationship, the camaraderie of the musicians and their rapport with Joshua Bell is palpable and productive. Can you sense a ‘but’ coming? But, while certain Beethoven works can take a chamber-orchestra approach, the Fifth Symphony isn’t one of them. Neither, really, is the Overture he wrote for Egmont, which here was remarkably unanimous considering Bell part-directs (with his bow) and part-plays. The opening was alternately clipped and expressive. The tempo for the allegro propelled excitingly, but the timpani hardly made an impression, Pedro Segundo being admirably accurate and musical but so polite as to almost totally lose a hugely important aspect of the scoring.

A lack of weight also compromised the Symphony, timpani once again a warm mush, save for the eerie transition into the finale where hard sticks made for clarity and crispness; and this last movement needed greater presence and independence from the trombones, which alongside piccolo and contrabassoon – both nicely audible – were then making their first appearance in a symphony. Bell’s tempos were quick, if not as hard-driven as some conductors, but for all the good intentions and the excellent playing there was little sense of darkness to light and, come the end, triumphant vindication. In a sense it was a concession to the forces involved and, working within these limitations, there was much to admire, but it didn’t go far enough; frankly, four cellos and two double basses just can’t bring the heft needed to the scherzo (played once, with repeats in place in the outer movements).

The first movement, with its famous motto, had a good shape, though, and Christopher Cowie was wonderfully expressive in the oboe soliloquy, yet the music didn’t seize the soul, and the sound was slightly deadened by the lack of vibrato, although the Andante con moto second movement had the right spirit and a real sense of progression as well as superb woodwinds. But overall what should move the earth wasn’t seismic or substantial enough, mostly due to too few players, and quite likely the lack of a totally hands-on conductor (this symphony, like the ‘Eroica’ and the ‘Choral’ needs an absolutely singular vision). That everybody gave everything in terms of energy and commitment was undoubted. Fair-play though, the opening release in the recorded ASMF/Bell Beethoven cycle is first-rate (review-link below).

The Brahms worked well, friends making music with Bell centre-stage encouraging his confreres to be alert and sensitive. It was an expansive but not an indulgent performance, Bell initially astringent and then becoming sweetly seductive as part of a shapely and affectionate traversal, notable for shared intimacies. The programme failed to reveal the creator of the first-movement cadenza, so it was no doubt Bell’s own (he has a penchant for doing this), and it worked well enough without banishing memories of the ‘usual’ Joachim (for whom the concerto was written) or indeed those by Busoni and Reger, and there are yet more choices out there; the late Ruggiero Ricci recorded the lot! The slow movement was led-off by Cowie’s poetic oboe, Bell often tender in his illustration, and the finale was nicely moderated. Overall this was a likeable and enjoyable account of an old favourite.

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