Strong Performance from Academy of St Martin in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Bruch, Mendelssohn: The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Joshua Bell (violin and director), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18.10.2012 (PCG)

Beethoven: Symphony No 1
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy
Mendelssohn: Symphony No 3 ‘Scottish’

The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields rode very high in the world of classical music during the 1970s and 1980s when their recordings of eighteenth and nineteenth century repertoire with a relatively small orchestra were not only ground-breaking but best sellers. Since then they have been somewhat eclipsed by the inroads of the ‘period instrument’ ensembles, but this concert served to remind us that they remain a treasure of British music-making.

A concert with a very similar programme given two days earlier in Birmingham was reviewed by Geoff Read for this site, and his comments were summarised by him as only ‘fair.’ Whether additional rehearsal and experience had caused a sea change I cannot say, but this concert was decidedly better than just ‘fair.’

The performance of the Beethoven First Symphony (not given in Birmingham) paid some homage to the notion of period practice, notably in the use of manual timpani; but it was a surprise to see the violins bunched inauthentically on the left of the stage where Joshua Bell led the orchestra from a seated position at the head of the first violins. There were a relatively small number of these, but there was no lack of muscle in their playing and the melodic outlines came through well – would that some of the ASMF’s rivals had the same merits. Bell managed to keep the players together excellently, even in the Haydnesque runs which opened the final movement (beautifully and subtly inflected) and the Minuet had all the hallmarks of the later Beethovenian scherzo. One’s only criticism could be that the timpani rhythms in the slow movement (one of Beethoven’s most original touches) could have been crisper and clearer.

Bell took centre stage for the Bruch Scottish Fantasy and gave a highly rhapsodic reading which should have presented problems for a conductor-less ensemble; but the ASMF responded sensitively and with no sense of a tentative approach. The romantic violin melodies did not sound under-powered even with only six first violins, and the performance was fully integrated. Bell had the score in front of him, but didn’t seem to need it; he and the orchestra moved as one, following every nuance and rubato. A performance like this demonstrates that when rehearsal time is available, a conductor is not needed even in a concerto, because the ASMF played like a chamber ensemble. Again there was one slight problem of balance; the harp sounded insufficiently prominent in the final section from its position behind the first violins – at any rate that is how it seemed from my seat in the notoriously idiosyncratic St David’s Hall.

The Scotch Symphony (as my Eulenberg miniature score calls it) started very slowly and romantically, Adagio rather than Andante con moto; but it expanded and accelerated smoothly into the main body of the movement. There was lots of rubato too in the Allegro section leading to the Assai animato; and in the repeat of the first movement exposition the speeds were even quicker, an excellent use of the formal device to make a new effect. The coda brought out the influence that this symphony had on Wagner in Der fliegende Holländer. An attempt was made to follow Mendelssohn’s instructions that pauses between the movements should be eliminated, but this was foiled by an outbreak of coughing from the audience. Maybe Bell should just have pressed on regardless. He kept the Adagio moving, to the advantage of the music, although he could not avoid the suspicion that Brahms at his most prolix was waiting in the wings. In the passage of the finale leading back to the final section, Bell laid down his violin and conducted the lead into the new tempo; and the horns pealed out joyously. The proportions of this symphony are peculiar, the long first movement (particularly with the lengthy exposition repeat) and slow movement completely dwarfing the scherzo that links them; but that is Mendelssohn’s problem, and presumably Queen Victoria (the dedicatee of the score) liked it like that.

It is hard to imagine any other orchestra than the ASMF being able to hold together under these unusual circumstances, and (unlike Geoff Read ) I did not find Bell’s head and body movements disturbing as he led the players through these far from straightforward scores. There were no slips in ensemble even in the most waywardly romantic passages. We neglect an ensemble like the ASMF at our peril; this was an object lesson in how these scores should be played with small forces.

Paul Corfield Godfrey