Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall – Beethoven, Scottish Fantasy, Scottish Symphony

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Scottish Fantasy, Op.46
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 October, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Lisa Marie MazzuccoIn front of a full audience, including Eddie Izzard, Joshua Bell played the violin the whole night through; either from the leader’s desk, with a bit of bow waving, or as soloist. Bell’s music directorship of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields is working wonders, the musicians playing with energy and enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean that everything was beyond criticism. The Beethoven (Bell and the ASMF are recording the symphony cycle for Sony Classical, but not on this occasion) started off well with an expectant slow introduction, which led to a delightfully gambolling Allegro, winds the equal of strings and nice crisp timpani. The Andante was too much of a walk though; and with the exposition not repeated, the movement was diminished. The scherzo flew by, but its trio was harried, and the finale, however deft and unanimous the playing, was nifty enough to border on the shapeless.

The players’ vigour and dedication was unstinting in Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony, a perfect mix of geographical inspiration and musical largesse. The opening Andante painted pictures, Bell and confreres alive to the spacious design of the first movement – enhanced by observing the lengthy exposition – the music driven by expressive light and shade and corporate commitment, turbulence unleashed in the coda (the weather can get quite stormy in this neck of the woods!). The gaps between movements were too long to fully respect Mendelssohn’s attacca directions, but once we reached the scherzo it was joyous but the Adagio was treated too much as andante to reveal its full sombre gravitas. The finale was given with ebullience, but the broad coda, while uplifting, found the horns (Mendelssohn’s requested four plus the ‘bumper’) just a little dominant and coarse-toned).

Those horns (in consort and solos) had been superb in Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, not heard enough these days. It’s an endearing piece, a full-blown concerto in effect, Bruch making affectionate use of Scottish Folk Melodies in a four-movement design. Written for the Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, the solo part demands much from any violinist, which Joshua Bell met with eloquence, intensity and unstinting creamy-rich tone, even in the stratospheric passages, and when the bowing needs to be furious Bell’s pirouettes were flawless. Using the biggest orchestra of the night (including harp, three trombones, a tuba, and a little extra percussion), the interaction between Bell and his players was continually impressive; friends making good music at the highest level.

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