Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields: A Thrilling Partnership

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mozart: Academy of St Martin in the Fields/ Joshua Bell (Director and Violin Soloist), Barbican, London. 11.11.2015. (LB)

Prokofiev – Symphony No.1 in D major, Op.25 (“Classical”)

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35

Mozart – Symphony No.40 in G minor, K.550

Standing ovations are a relatively rare occurrence in London, especially at orchestral concerts, but the musicians of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields earned ecstatic applause and a standing ovation for their thrilling performance at the Barbican last night.

The most exceptional accomplishment of the evening, and the one that appeared to fire the imagination, and earn the affection of the audience, was the extraordinary performance, without conductor, of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell as soloist.

Now in his fourth year as music director of The Academy, Joshua Bell is enjoying the unparalleled opportunity to reinvigorate his solo repertoire with a new perspective, directing from the violin, and learning from scratch, from the leader’s chair, a wealth of chamber orchestra repertoire, which is the bread and butter of the musicians around him.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields has since its inception been essentially a conductorless ensemble, and the subtle distinction between directing and conducting seemingly escapes even BBC Radio 3 presenters like Suzy Klein, who advertised the concert on the ‘In Tune’ programme earlier in the evening as being conducted by Joshua Bell.

Bell has not yet, as far as I am aware, felt the need to wield a baton in front of an orchestra that routinely performs even the most complex music without the need for a conductor, and he successfully directed this evening’s concert from the violin.

Prokofiev’s enchanting “Classical Symphony” opened the orchestra’s programme, and the first challenge they faced was the Barbican’s notoriously peculiar acoustic. They quickly mastered the hall’s idiosyncrasies though, and even if I did at times wish for greater depth of string sound, at both ends of the spectrum, the sound that reached us was a sophisticated and brilliant one.

The first three movements of Prokofiev’s neoclassical gem were technically and stylistically beyond reproach, but it wasn’t until the Molto vivace final movement that the orchestra truly burst into life, unleashing its impressive athleticism.

Harvey de Souza, alongside Bell for the Prokofiev, moved into the leader’s chair for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and with the minimum of fuss, decisively maintained cohesion between soloist and orchestra. After overseeing a tidy opening orchestral ritornello, Bell turned to face his audience and launched into an affectionate and compelling performance of a concerto that he has by his own admission performed about a thousand times, always with a conductor.

Bell appeared to relish the freedom of being able to do anything he wished musically, safe in the knowledge that he and the orchestra were extremely unlikely to part company; The Academy of St Martin in the Fields possesses an enviable musical radar and supreme agility. Ensemble was almost universally impeccable, but without ever compromising musical integrity. A packed Barbican hall burst into prolonged and enthusiastic applause after a thrilling first movement, recognising the extraordinary nature of the unfolding musical display.

The emotive Canzonetta second movement was especially elegantly performed, with beautifully articulated woodwind solos, and the finale was earthy, virtuosic and absorbing, from both soloist and orchestra.

After the interval the orchestra launched into Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G minor with a level of assurance that explicitly demonstrated the Academy’s grasp of idiom, its outstanding technical dexterity, and the consummate ease with which it commands the repertoire of the classical era.

With a musical instrument as remarkable as The Academy of St Martin in the Fields at his disposal, Joshua Bell had the opportunity to articulate his personal vision of Mozart, a composer that curiously hasn’t featured significantly in his own solo career.  On this occasion his interpretation emphasized the dramatic, with audacious choices of tempi, especially in the outer movements.

The Academy’s Mozart remains uniquely stylish and persuasive, the apparent revolution in historically informed performance notwithstanding, and their performance of Mozart’s penultimate symphony this evening was as ecstatically received as Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto had been earlier in the concert.

I got the distinct impression that there would have been no opposition to the performance of an encore.

Leon Bosch

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