Joshua Bell and the ASMF: Wonderful Music-Making – and Smiles All Round!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Mendelssohn: Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell (director/violin), Cadogan Hall, London, 19.1.2017. (CS)

BeethovenEgmont Overture Op.84
Mendelssohn – Concerto for violin and orchestra in E minor Op.64
Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F major Op.68 (‘Pastoral’)

Why do orchestras need conductors? A recent scientific study set out to find out whether conductors actually influence their orchestras; but, that’s surely not a question that can be answered by ‘science’, or in the space afforded by a concert review (if at all). It is a question, however, that came to mind during this exciting, fresh, alert performance of music by Beethoven and Mendelssohn by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, under their Music Director, violinist Joshua Bell.

If conductors are required to keep the players together during rehearsal and performance, then this concert suggested that rehearsals had been so efficient, productive and enlightening – and enjoyable – that such a role might have been rendered redundant. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the duty was given to the first-violin ‘leader’ – who was initially just a time-beater (it was customary to beat time with a staff on the floor, though this only happened when it was necessary to keep the ensemble together). Later, conductors were charged with indicating weight, dynamics, phrasing and levels of expression – ‘interpreting’. And, in the 19th century, as the orchestra and the works composed for it grew in size, so did the conductor’s role and status – and, some might say, ego. By the time of Wagner and Mahler, the ‘maestro’ was well on the way to being perceived as the divinely inspired receptor of the composer’s ‘message’.

In Beethoven’s day, though, the conductor’s role was still a relatively humble one. Yet, during this Cadogan Hall concert it was clearly evident that Bell’s presence, committed encouragement and subtle guidance played a huge part in inspiring and influencing his fellow performers. As Bell notes in an introductory programme article, he made his first recording with the ensemble when he was just a teenager, and now, finding himself in his sixth year as Music Director, he considers ‘the Academy “my musical family”’. The performers’ obvious joy on this occasion – animated playing, chamber-style integration and communication … smiles all round – suggests that he is not alone is this judgement.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, with Bell seated on a piano stool beside his desk partner and co-leader, Emi Ohi Resnick. I was astonished both by the ASMF players’ concordant attention to detail and by the sense of intimacy they created, especially as Bell was an unobtrusive presence, seeming to let the players have freedom to shape phrases as soloists when the music so demanded. But, there was no doubting the ‘communal mind-set’ in terms of the overall expressive register: this Egmont was grave without being bombastic, urgent but also rhythmically emphatic. The gradations of the tutti pronouncements, the blending of the woodwind, the balance between instrumental groupings, the dramatic dynamic contrasts: all conveyed a single-mindedness which was utterly persuasive and absorbing. In the Allegro con brio coda, Bell led by example – coaxing a thrillingly bright sound from the strings.

Bell returned to the platform as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and immediately hooked the listener with the lovely sheen of his opening E-string melody, which – not adorned with excessive vibrato – shone with a purity and freshness which captured the youthful spirit of the concerto. As the first movement progressed we could hear the inner dialogues, appreciate the varied colours; with the commencement of the second subject, the slightest of turns towards the woodwind was all that Bell needed to ensure the continuity of conversation between soloist and accompaniment at a significant musical landmark.

Bell’s passagework was light and refreshing – somehow he managed to blend delicacy of articulation with forthrightness of phrasing – as he built towards the cadenza. The latter was Bell’s own – there is some evidence that Mendelssohn’s friend Ferdinand David may have actually composed the original cadenza – and though Bell’s more extrovert rhetoric may not have appealed to those who relish the lyrical melodism of the original, there was sufficient debt to the printed score to satisfy recollections of the original cadenza’s established discourse and proportions. The transition back to the tonic minor key was compelling and the coda made its mark: both incisive and fleet.

In the Andante Bell communicated the music’s emotion without sliding into saccharine cloyingness. The transition between the first and second movements suggested the opening of vistas, and the flowing tempo of the Andante resisted self-indulgent introspection. The finale, Allegro non troppo, was fast and light-footed. The solo violin’s harmonics rang resonantly at the start and Bell conjured a mercurial magic that recalled the faery world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – by turns, fantastical and cheeky. Here was freedom, honesty, freshness and warmth. What more could one wish for?

After the interval, spring dawned – the opening of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was wonderfully coloured by joy and anticipation. The complexity of the musical conversations meant that it was more challenging for Bell to keep all in accord, and there were a few places where the horns slid away from the strings; but, paradoxically, this just added to the sense of spontaneous creativity. In the Andante molto mosso, restlessness punctured the surface calm, but the initial disquiet was quelled, to be replaced by the image of a 19th-century gentleman strolling self-assuredly amid the sublime Romantic landscape. The ‘Merry gathering of country folk’ was robustly bucolic, but retained a patina of genteel warmth; so much so, that the ferocious onslaught of the timpani at the start of the ‘Thunderstorm’, however familiar, took one by surprise.  Here, one could appreciate Bell’s nuanced guidance: dynamic gradings and contrasts were precisely determined – accents bit acerbically, the wind whistled threatening.

A nascent richness led into the ‘Shepherd’s Song’ finale. The closing movement was characterised by a gentle elegance, allied with vitality of detail, which summed up the concert as a whole.

Claire Seymour

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