Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall – Mendelssohn & Schubert – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) & Death and the Maiden (Mahler)

Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Schubert, arr. Mahler
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

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

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 7 October, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Joshua Bell. Photograph: www.joshuabell.comThis concert was entitled “Dark Destinations”, which certainly makes sense in respect of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, but rather less so regarding the pieces by Mendelssohn, which received life-enhancing performances.

In Joshua Bell’s very sensitive directing of The Hebrides, the opening phrases were moulded in a way that evoked wonderment at the natural beauty depicted. With playing that by turns was tender, lithe, and vibrant, Bell conjured up the serene beauty of Fingal’s Cave, and the rolling sea in which Mendelssohn had been sick during his 1829 boat visit to the west coast of Scotland. There were numerous notable solo contributions and significant silence greeted the beautifully calibrated conclusion and testified to the audience’s sense of rapture.

As for the Violin Concerto, could anything new be brought to this perennial favourite? Directing from his 1713 ‘Huberman’ Stradivarius (with occasional input from the leader, Harvey de Souza), Bell combined the roles of conductor and soloist immaculately. His first entry stole in quite modestly, which made for a rapt mood. And his rapport with the players resulted in a reading that was both collegiate and highly expressive. Bell played his own cadenza, which is tasteful and works well enough, but I see little reason to set aside the original, which is integral to the score. The word ‘expressive’ applied not least to the slow movement, which was extremely touching and quite devoid of sentimentality. And the finale was full of energy but never seemed ‘showy’, right up until we reached the home straight where an infectious surge was quite thrilling.

With Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ we certainly arrived at that ‘Dark Destination’. In 1896 Mahler started to think about how the work might be arranged for string orchestra. In the event he never completed the task, and it was left to David Matthews and Donald Mitchell to put together a performing version from the only music that Mahler had written out (the slow movement) and from his written annotations. The Academy of St. Martin players were ideal exponents. With four double basses added to groups of violins, violas and cellos, the challenge is to retain the potency of the original. All through this performance it was clear that the key to its success was the exceptional cohesion and unanimity of the playing – flawless. In the Allegro the cut and thrust of the music was superbly projected, while in the second movement (which offers variations on Schubert’s death-related song Der Tod und das Mädchen) with its more comforting theme, the mood of compassion was touchingly caught. The cellos made an especially powerful contribution here, as did the contrast between joy and sorrow. There was terrific propulsion and intensity to the remaining movements, the finale moving inexorably and implacably towards its D minor tragic conclusion. This was an inspirational concert.

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