Toe-Tapping Piazzolla from Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, Tchaikovsky, Piazzolla: Joshua Bell (director/violin), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Wigmore Hall, London, 15.11.2017. (CS)

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major BWV1048
TchaikovskySerenade in C major Op.48
PiazzollaFour Seasons of Buenos Aires (arr. Leonid Desyatnikov for violin and strings)

When I heard the Academy of St Martin in the Fields perform at the Cadogan Hall at the start of the year, I noted the obvious pleasure that the players took from working with their Music Director, violinist Joshua Bell.  Six months later, the smiles must have widened when the ASMF announced that Bell had renewed his contract with the orchestra for a further three years.

‘Purists’ might not have warmed to the interpretation of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto which opened this concert (to be repeated on Friday) at the Wigmore Hall, though.  There was certainly a bite to the sound and unflagging vigour but despite the small numbers – just a single player assigned to each of the nine parts, plus double bass and harpsichord – there was a prevailing heft and density that became somewhat wearing, particularly when lack of dynamic variety and range were added to the mix.  I wondered, both during this chamber concerto and in the subsequent Tchaikovsky Serenade, whether Bell and his band had got the full measure of the acoustics in the Hall.  It’s a smaller venue than their usual performance territory, perhaps, and requires more nuance than we had here.  The buoyant lines of the Allegro lacked spaciousness, the contrapuntal exchanges tumbling one after the other, seemingly ever louder, and accruing an almost exhausting weightiness.  Rhythm seemed all: where was the lyricism of the arguments between the nine ‘soloists’?  That said, the individual playing was impressively incisive – the tricky solo episodes, in which Bach seems determined to tie the players’ fingers in a tangle of arpeggio-knots, were crisply despatched – and the movement’s structural landmarks were effectively shaped.

I hoped that the ‘two-chord’ Adagio might give opportunity for some freedom and air: but, no, we simply had the two chords, with some minor coloration from harpsichordist John Constable, and then we were off … as Bell launched the ASMF into a breakneck Allegro that threatened, in the opening bars, to skid off the rails.  Control was quickly reassumed, and even the seemingly indefatigable Bell couldn’t prevent the tempo relaxing as the movement proceeded (thankfully), but there remained a prevailing sense of relentlessness which diminished the grace of Bach’s ‘dance’.

After some furniture moving and the removal of the harpsichord, the full forces of the ASMF took to the stage for a radiantly Romantic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s melody-rich Serenade.  There really was a lovely sheen to the sound in the slow, densely chordal introduction and when the Pezzo in forma di Sonatina got underway, Bell was a propulsive dynamo, his energy lifting him from his stool as he flicked his bow, like a flash of lightning, in the direction of individual sections to trigger their slippery semi-quaver rises.  In fact, there was little need for visual gesture: every player clearly had his or her ears open.  Despite the lushness of the sound, the contrapuntal arguments were sharply defined, though the intonation of the full ensemble was not always absolutely secure.  If there was one element that might have been the ‘icing on the cake’, it would have been a greater sense of ‘ease’ and time-taking at phrase-endings and major cadential points: time to regather and absorb, rather than push persistently onwards.  I did, heretically, wonder whether this sort of flexibility and nuance might have been aided by a conductor.

Similarly, the Valse was played with an impressively focused sound but the tiny, subtle swings and sways which might have whisked us to the ballroom were lacking – though it should be noted that the ensemble in the ritenutos and fermatas was pristine.  I’m not sure we had a real pianissimo at the start of the Élégie’s first, swelling phrase, but the tone was beautifully velvety and the violins’ cantabile melody really did ‘sing’, from the heart, accompanied by strikingly resonant pizzicato gambolling in the lower strings.  I was impressed, too, by the way Bell built towards the climax of this movement, the inner voices assuming ever greater insistence as the harmonic sequences unfolded.  There was some reduction of the forces in the latter part of the movement – is this necessary to attain a genuine string ‘hush’? – but in the closing bars the ensemble conveyed emotional equanimity and quietude.  The overall structure of the Finale: Tema Russo was similarly well-conceived, a folky ingenuousness prevailing as episodes of scampering mice and stampeding feet alternated with equal panache!

After the interval, the Baroque met Buenos Aires in Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro estaciones porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) – a work which seemed to ‘free’ the players of the ASMF and consequently imbue their performance with a sense of light and liberty which has thus far been absent.

The Vivaldian allusions of Piazzolla’s original four movements, for small ensemble, were extended when, in the 1990s and at the request of Gidon Kremer, Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov transformed them into a concerto form – though the intertextual interjections don’t always come where one expects them (southern v. northern hemisphere!), and the seasons themselves all seem to slip beneath the tango’s embrace.  The music seems to pose the question, ‘how do you like your tango’ and the response is unfailingly, ‘hot’!

For, the porteñas of the title refers to the natives of Buenos Aires, the home of tango, but while the ASMF ‘got into the groove’, I’m not sure that real danger and eroticism of the dance was conjured.  But, the double basses’ pizzicato was smoky and sultry in the opening Verano (Summer), off-setting the exquisite high solo violin line and Bell’s subsequent ear-ringing harmonics.  Cellist Stephen Orton was impressively self-composed in the solo extravaganza in Otoño (Autumn); and, Bell didn’t indulge in dramatics when he patted the fingerboard of his Gibson, Huberman Stradivarius before launching into his own fancy finger-work.  Violinist Harvey de Souza led the concluding Primavera with a gutsiness which infected the ensuing manic fugue, which was underscored by a percussive thump.

Although Piazzolla does not juxtapose movements of different pace and mood – in the manner of the fast-slow-fast Baroque model – passages of lyricism and reflection are integrated into each seasonal portrait.  The ASMF sashayed easily between ambiences and Bell embraced the cantilena lines with characteristic seductive beauty of tone, making every sensuous undulation and decoration tell, communicating the music’s passion as well as its pathos.  Some Mexican schmooze was offered as an encore, but the overall effect of this soupy digestif was more Viennese than Latino.

The second half of this concert offered style, class and schmaltz and if the ASMF didn’t quite transform the Wigmore Hall into an Argentinian jazz club, the toes of Wigmore regulars were surely tapping even if they weren’t dancing in the aisles.

Claire Seymour

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