A ‘Scottish’ Flavoured Concert from Joshua Bell

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Bruch, Mendelssohn: Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 14.10.2012 (GR).

Beethoven: Overture, Egmont, Op 84; Romance No 2 in F Major, Op 50.
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op 46
Mendelssohn: Symphony No 3 in A Minor Op 56,

The pulling power of a classical music superstar was in evidence at the Symphony Hall as a packed audience took their seats for this Sunday afternoon concert on Oct 14th, part of the Birmingham International Concert Season 2012/13. Just when I was wondering if Birmingham classical audiences might be beginning to stutter, it was encouraging to see such a mixed and enthusiastic gathering. They were there to see and hear Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, although the programme of four evergreen pieces had its own attraction. However my overall satisfaction barometer failed to rise above ‘Fair’.

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture opened the proceedings. The instant mellow sound of the cellos and subsequent agitation of the violins engendered fond memories of the chamber orchestra’s heyday in the 60s under founder Sir Neville Marriner. But the sheer impact and power that I associate with this overture – one of my favourite short Beethoven pieces – was lacking. There was little to suggest the obdurate and nationalistic themes prompted by the Duke of Alba and Egmont, protagonists in Goethe’s eponymous play. Although the crescendos were adroitly managed, the decibel levels reached came across as reserved; perhaps a larger orchestra than this one with a twenty-four string section was required. If so, why include it?

Having led from the position of first violin, Joshua Bell took centre stage for the second Beethoven number, his Romance No 2 in F Major, Op 50. This piece lived up to its title and innate lyricism: Bell has, and had, romance at his fingertips; and his control on the G String of his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius was breathtaking.

Max Bruch and hisScottish Fantasy came next. Dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, the soloist at the 1880 premiere, the work deserves a virtuosic performance and the West Midlands audience got one from Bell. Any previous doubts or criticism of incorrect orchestral balance was instantly dispelled by the partnership of Bell and his players; they created a mood-setting introduction to the first movement, based upon the melody Auld Rob Morris. Bell’s dazzling display in the following Allegro, featuring the traditional air Hey, the Dusty Miller, sounded a cross between a Scottish jig and an American hoedown. The strings combined exquisitely in the Andante sostenuto, in particular the violas led by Fiona Bonds. The most noticeable sounds of Scotland came in the finale, Allegro guerriero; any true-blooded Scot present must have been roused by war-like rendering of Scots, wha’ hae wi’ Wallace. A ‘wee dram’ in the interval would have been well deserved!

The Scottish connection resumed in the second half, belonging solely to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3 in A Minor Op 56, nicknamed the Scottish. As conductor, Bell reverted to his first violin position, but it seemed as if he was uncertain as to his role – conductor, leader or soloist. Joining in with the first violins one minute, waving his François Tourte bow the next (possibly the most valuable baton on record) I became progressively distracted by the exaggerated head and body movements Bell used to control his orchestra. Closing my eyes seemed to defeat the whole object of the performance. I have seen many chamber orchestras led from the chair, yet never until now has this been a problem. Only the second director in the celebrated history of the Academy, Bell may have a little catching up to establish himself as a worthy successor to Marriner.

Geoff Read