Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall

Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 April, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Lisa Marie MazzuccoJoshua Bell, recently installed as music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, gives his guidance from the leader’s chair (piano stool, in fact) acting as an interpreting concertmaster, the ASMF conductor-less and democratic but with Bell having the last word in matters of tempo, phrasing and overall style.

It’s only since the beginning of this season that the ASMF’s founder Neville Marriner has stood down from his fifty-year managerial role – and in his late-eighties he is still going strong as a conductor. But, roll the clock back to the Academy’s earliest days and Marriner would have been seated playing his violin (originally when moonlighting from the LSO) until the ensemble’s repertoire and personnel grew necessitating a ‘proper’ conductor. So Bell and the current ASMF company is returning to first base (and him to the group he made his first recording with) even in music in which a standing and semaphoring conductor might seem de rigueur.

Before embarking on a 15-concert tour of the United States, Bell and friends gave us most of the travelling repertoire (add to which Beethoven 7, this and No.4 being recorded for Sony Classical on returning). Indeed, fast-forward a couple of seasons and all nine Beethoven symphonies will have been given by Bell and his new charges. It’s an intriguing prospect given that the Fourth was impressive. Maybe the slow introduction could have welcomed dawn at a less-flowing tempo, but it had its own pregnancy and the main Allegro was purposeful and enjoyed light and shade. Best were the middle movements, an Adagio of lyrical beauty with felicitous woodwind-playing and then a virile scherzo with beguiling trio. The finale was less successful, not due to any executive failures – indeed the playing was superbly unanimous and poised, even machine-like – but the tempo was ever-so-fast and lost some of the music’s swing and wit.

Opening the evening was Mozart 25. Here the spanking pace for the first movement was exhilarating while leaving room for Christopher Cowie’s oboe solos to be lingeringly expressive, which also suited the slow movement, gently done. If the Minuet was appropriately terse, the Trio was dislocated from it in tempo and with self-conscious shaping; the finale, though, was ideally moderate to catch its syncopations and demons.

In between, the ubiquitous Max Bruch G minor Violin Concerto – great piece if simply played too often. Here Bell could only ‘conduct’ (Harvey de Souza leading) when he wasn’t playing and there were times when the orchestra was already doing what he merely joined in by way of encouragement. Nevertheless it showed the ASMF’s musicians’ total commitment and security (a few members from the LSO and Philharmonia in the ranks) and their response to Bell’s shapely and silvery-sounded account (with a not-unwelcome astringency to the tone) that conjured a sublime Adagio and vivacious finale. As the opening movement came to its conclusion it may be that Bell slightly tweaked the solo part into a faux-cadenza (he’s written his own for the Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn concertos). Here and in the Beethoven, Adrian Bending’s timpani-playing was a model of clarity and modulation (a perfect successor, if he is, to the great Tristan Fry).

If one perhaps missed the greater range of colour and dynamics that a conductor might have elicited, there’s no doubt that Joshua Bell and the Academy have something and are on to something; the sell-out audience (including Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic music director) would agree.

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