A Concert that Really Needed the Guiding Hand of a Conductor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms: Joshua Bell (director/violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Cadogan Hall, London, 22.1.2016. (AS)

Dvořák: Waldesruhe, B182

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93

Schumann: Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO23 – second movement (with codetta by Britten)

Brahms: Concerto for violin and cello, Op. 102

This was an unusual concert structurally, but no matter, since Steven Isserlis’s lovely performance of Dvořák’s brief Waldesruhe (“Silent Woods”) was an effective opening item. Here Joshua Bell directed the orchestra from the violin leader’s seat, as he did throughout the evening when not taking a solo part.

Initially Beethoven’s Eighth’s Symphony made a strong impression, with striking unanimity of ensemble in the first movement, taken at a fast tempo with plenty of energetic attack. But doubts grew in the following Allegretto, whose jog-trot gait seemed rather devoid of personality, and in a somewhat ordinary account of the minuet and trio, with surprisingly fallible horn contributions. In general the orchestra played well – in fact it seemed to play just as well when Bell was occupied with the first violin part as it did when he was free to make somewhat vague gestures at his players with his violin bow. And it would surely have been impossible for him accurately to engineer the start of the finale from his seat if the opening notes had been scored for the whole ensemble instead of just the strings. An inescapable conclusion for this listener was that the rendering of the symphony as a whole would have been much more compelling with the presence of an experienced and gifted conductor.

The collaboration of Bell and Isserlis was tailor-made for the next item, the slow movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, with its solo orchestral cello part. The interest here was in the fact that this movement had been played by itself under the title of “Elegy for violin and orchestra (from the Violin Concerto)”, at a 1958 concert organised by Benjamin Britten in memory of the horn player Dennis Brain, with the solo part taken by Yehudi Menuhin. This movement usually leads directly into the polonaise finale, but for his special concert Britten had written a seven bar “codetta” to provide the movement with a suitable ending. Heard again for the first time in 57 years, this little addition proved to be very effective and perfectly in style with the movement as a whole. But this did not stop at least one listener from moving on to the music of the concerto’s lovely finale in his mind – with a slight feeling of loss.

The evening’s biggest item was Brahms’s Double Concerto, and it posed the biggest challenge for Bell as violin/director. Firstly, this work as we know it now needs a decent cushion of tutti sound on which the solo parts may rest, and the tone quality and volume generated by the ASMF’s small string section was not only insufficient, but too weak to provide the right kind of balance with woodwind and brass. Brahms’s scoring therefore sounded untypically coarse. As a whole the performance was unexceptionable, with fine playing from both Bell and Isserlis and good choice of tempi. But ensemble became a bit unstuck in the middle movement for a while, and the execution in general seemed a little rudderless: on the one hand the orchestra had to fend for itself for much of the time, and on the other hand Bell’s solo playing would have had more concentration if he had not been continually distracted by the apparent need to direct his players (though again his interventions did not necessarily create any difference in the quality of playing).

Once again, a conductor was really needed. It would be good to hear Bell and Isserlis repeat their performance of this work, with a larger orchestra under the direction of an accomplished wielder of the baton.

Alan Sanders  

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