Safe Beethoven but Exciting Brahms from Joshua Bell

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Beethoven, Brahms: Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell (director/solo violin), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.01.2014 (SRT)

Bach:                 Chaconne from Partita No. 2 (arr. Julian Milone)
Beethoven:        Symphony No. 1
Brahms:            Violin Concerto


Joshua Bell has made quite a splash with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields since taking over as their music director.  He may no longer be boyish, but his still youthful energy is about as different as it is possible to get to the elder statesman style of Sir Neville Marriner, the orchestra’s founder.  I jumped at the chance to hear them when their tour came to Edinburgh, and a pretty full Usher Hall indicated that they constitute a pretty sizeable draw.

It’s a statement of intent opening with Bach’s great Chaconne, placing Bell’s talents as a violinist centre-stage (literally!).  Julian Milone’s arrangement of the Chaconne is extensive and very impressive, for all its lack of authenticity.  With the soloist bearing the brunt of the musical argument, the string ensemble merely orbits around him in a variety of ways.  Sometimes they reinforced him, sometimes they provided a comforting bed of sound, sometimes they acted in a manner that seems almost comically out of place with Bach, such as the outrageous pizzicati at the outset of the central major key section.  It was nevertheless very beautifully (and architecturally) played, and it’s nice to hear it as a one-off treat.

The orchestra’s choice of sound world for Beethoven was pretty straightforwardly Romantic with tempi on the measured side, vibrato on the strings and on the whole a pretty fat tone.  The only difference was the natural timps (which made a big difference in the rollicking of the Scherzo), but beyond that, while their performance of the first symphony was beautifully played and well put together, it felt fairly ordinary and, dare I say it, safe.

If I feared that this would infect their Brahms, though, then I needn’t have worried, as they turned in a lean, exciting performance of the Violin Concerto that had a kick of energy all the way through its large opening Allegro.  Their big sound suited Brahms much better: their Romantic opulence married to a chamber-style transparency brought the best of both worlds and was extremely impressive in the opening tutti.  The string sound, in particular, was rich and vibrant but, save for a few snatches in the finale, was never in danger of overwhelming the soloist.  Bell himself was marvellous to watch and to listen to.  There was a daring sense of grandeur to the soloist’s first entry (a wry slur catching the audience off guard), coupled with the security of his absolute confidence, which them quickly dispelled into a sublime recap of the opening material.  It’s fascinating seeing him direct his players from the violin.  Most of the time he doesn’t pay them much heed (testament to mutual trust and to extensive rehearsal time), but for the big tuttis he turns around and drives them forward, as if to egg them on to something greater.  The cadenza (his own, presumably) was thoughtfully shaped but pretty astounding in its technique, and it fed into a brilliantly decisive conclusion to the movement.  The Adagio then had a gorgeous lyrical flow but not a hint of gloop (you could hear right through the middle of it) and the finale came with an in-built adrenaline rush, Bell’s mischievous slurs (again) giving the coda a distinctively cheeky edge to bring the whole evening to a very exciting close.

Simon Thompson