Clarity and Resilience in Joshua Bell’s Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell (violin/director), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 19.1.2014 (MC)

J.S. Bach (arr. Julian Milone): Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004 (arranged for solo violin & string orchestra)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major

It was wonderful to see the Bridgewater Hall as heavily occupied as I had seen it for some time for this concert in the Bridgewater Hall International Concert Series. A full house really adds to the atmosphere. I had been looking forward to seeing the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields directed by their music director, renowned international violinist Joshua Bell, who certainly has quite a personal following. I have a number of treasured recordings with the American born Bell as soloist but I was fascinated to see if this concert would live up to my expectations to which my answer was partially.

Opening the concert was J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 using the arrangement for solo violin and string orchestra prepared by Julian Milone. Bach composed the set of Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin whilst at Cöthen during his time as Kapellmeister for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. This was an astonishingly fruitful period even by Bach’s standards also producing the Six Unaccompanied Cello Suite and the Six Brandenburg Concertos. Bell’s playing of the Chaconne might have suited some tastes; however, it felt contrived with the overall sound stemming predominantly from the romantic emotional expressiveness of his phrasing which served to lessen the baroque feel of the piece. It was hard though to fault the sympathetic support from the string ensemble.

The most successful performance on the programme was Bell’s direction from the violin of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C major. When the assured and inventive Beethoven wrote his First Symphony in 1800 at Vienna his conventional instrumentation honoured the tradition of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart employing strings, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. In this early Beethoven masterpiece Bell directed a performance of clarity and resilience with dramatic episodes that felt just right. Especially impressive was the Scherzo-like Menuetto played with plenty of weight and bite and in truth a touch quicker than I expected. With a lovely balance across each section the ASMF made a beautiful unified sound which I sensed came slightly at the expense of additional character.

Bell positioned the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major as the final work of the evening and why not. It’s a great work that I always relish the opportunity of hearing and product of happy times in Brahms’s life as he worked on the score during one of his vacations in the picturesque Alpine town of Portschach on the Wörthersee in Austria. It wasn’t long before Bell’s notorious knee bending and back arching started to become tiresome. I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by his gymnastics too much but his playing never seemed to get under the skin of the work. In the Adagio, Bell with his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius conveyed a weeping tone at times but overall it wasn’t consistent and needed more intensity, more emotion. Impeccably prepared the ASMF excelled providing some crisp playing. It almost feels unfair to single out particular players but I loved Christopher Cowie’s reedy oboe solo that opened the Adagio. At the conclusion Bell’s legion of devoted fans enjoyed seeing him perform and a considerable number stood and cheered. But I wasn’t totally convinced feeling somewhat frustrated that Bell failed to get to the emotional heart of the work. All in all the concert was something of a mixed bag.

Michael Cookson