United Kingdom Dvořák, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms: Stephen Isserlis (cello), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell (violin/director), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.1.2016. (SRT)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8
Schumann: Elegie (arr. Britten)
Brahms: Double Concerto
Joshua Bell has given the Academy of St Martin in the Fields a real shot in the arm since taking over as their Director. They’ve had Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony in their blood for decades, of course, but the sound for this performance was as energetic and pacy as that of a youth orchestra, if rather more refined. The sound was unashamedly big and muscular but still admirably together, and they shaped the first movement’s development with the energy of a gathering wave, which broke on the return of the first theme. That weight lent extra swagger to the Menuet, even down to the bumbling cellos of the Trio, and the finale’s agility was balanced by the power of the bass line, driven by a very energetic timpanist!
Bell showed some of his solo panache in the Schumann/Britten Elegie (Britten arranged it from the slow movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto), with playing of delectable sweetness. He was joined by Stephen Isserlis, who didn’t have much to do in the Elegie, but who came into his own in the gorgeous, long melody of Dvořák’s Waldesruhe, which was unashamedly Romantic on its own, but Isserlis wasn’t afraid to milk it with lashings of vibrato and seamless phrasing.
Bell and Isserlis joining forces for the Brahms Double Concerto formed, predictably, the highlight of the concert. Two superstars in their own right, it’s fascinating watching them team up. As I noticed during his recent SCO concert, Isserlis is all rhapsodic contemplation, while Bell is the assertive dramatist. This makes for compelling listening in their variety of approaches, but they both manage to be remarkably lyrical, both in the silky golden tone of the cello and the vibrant flair of Bell’s violin. It made the first movement sound even more architectural than usual, with two protagonists who picked out different things, and thus the different pieces of Brahms’ structure came together with unusual clarity. Both soloists and orchestra produced a beautifully warm, rich string sound for the slow movement, and they struck playful sparks off one another in the Rondo finale. There was a lovely, bright sheen to the orchestral playing, too, surprising us all by revealing that a chamber orchestra like this is just the right size for Brahms.