Joshua Bell and the ASMF: blazing Paganini proves that the devil still has the best tunes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann and Paganini: Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields / Joshua Bell (violin and director). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. 26.1.2023. (CSa)

Joshua Bell performing with the ASMF at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schumann (arr. Ravel) – Excerpts from Carnival, Op.9

Paganini– Violin Concerto No.1 in D Major

Schumann – Symphony No.2 in C Major

Recently returned to London after a thirteen-stop tour of Germany and Luxembourg, the indefatigable Joshua Bell and the musicians of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields brought a high-octane performance of Schumann and Paganini to the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. The decision to link works by these two nineteenth-century composers in the same programme made sense. Niccolò Paganini was a devoted follower of the music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik which was founded and edited by Schumann, and the latter’s admiration for the virtuosity of the man known as ‘the Devil’s Violinist’ is well-documented. After attending a concert in Frankfurt in 1830 to hear Paganini play in person, the 20-year-old Schumann enthusiastically reported, ‘how he cast his magnetic chains into the listeners lightly and invisibly so that the latter swayed from one side to the other.’ Indeed, so great was Schumann’s veneration for Paganini, that he actually features as one of the characters in Carnaval – his collection of 21 miniatures for solo piano.

Carnival, the piece which began the concert, was commissioned by the great dancer Vaclav Nijinsky on behalf of the Ballet Russes and deftly adapted for orchestra by Ravel in 1913. Like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, adapted by Ravel eight years later, Schumann’s composition was originally written for piano, and comprises a series of 21 etchings or paintings. These portray a series of characters at a masked ball at carnival time. Sadly, much of Ravel’s original score has been lost and only a few of these orchestral sketches remain. The first movement, Préamble, opens with a bold brass fanfare, after which a series of grand, swirling melodies transport us to the dance floor. The second extract, Valse allemande – Paganini, a lilting and wistful waltz, specifically includes Schumann’s hero in its title. The third piece – Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins – is a biblical reference to the musical King David who slew the Philistines and was intended to take a swipe at the shallow compositions of some of Schumann’s mediocre but popular competitors. In musical terms, Carnival occupies the same melodramatic, one-dimensional world of Parisian light opera. Despite Ravel’s subtle and complex textures, there is something reminiscent of Offenbach in its orchestration. Superficial perhaps, but a deliciously tuneful choice to open the proceedings. Bell, seated on a leather upholstered rectangular stool, took his place next to the first violins, and pivoting between the orchestra and audience, used his bow in extravagant gestures to accompany or alternatively conduct his players. Under his energetic leadership, every section of the Academy’s 52-strong band sparkled.

Piano stool removed, Bell stood centre stage in front of his players holding his 300-year-old Huberman Stradivarius, to perform Paganini’s First Violin Concerto. Described by one critic as ‘a concerto with the madcap theatricality of comic opera’. It is an extravaganza of devilish difficulty which requires almost pyrotechnical skills and the athleticism of a London Marathon winner to perform. The orchestra provides a somewhat mundane accompaniment to the violin’s acrobatic melodies. There are no more than a handful of soloists today who are capable of playing them, and fewer still who can imbue them with such deep emotional intensity. Bell is one of them. The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, is an intricate assault course of double and triple stops taken at breakneck speed. Bell, swaying from side to side like a sapling in a storm, made light of these extraordinary demands. Yet his performance was not centred on technical showmanship. On the contrary, his emphasis was on rigorous control, refinement, and sweetness of tone. Each theme was exquisitely moulded, and each note articulated with sparkling precision and clarity, particularly in the beautiful second movement Adagio. In Bell’s magic hands, the breath-taking intricacies of the demanding Rondo: Allegro spirituoso appeared effortless.

After a rousing standing ovation from the near-capacity audience, and a well-earned interval, Bell once again resumed his player-conductor role, seated to one side of the orchestra, for a performance of Schumann’s complex Symphony No.2. Written when the composer was facing a crisis in his personal life, and affected by hearing problems and the onset of mental illness, the work was regarded by Schumann as ‘full of combativeness, very moody and rebellious in character’. The work’s rich, and constantly changing tones and textures reflected Schumann’s shifting emotional states and made for an altogether more introspective and spiritual contrast to the offerings in the programme’s first half.  The symphony’s first movement marked Sostenuto assai which begins with a serene brass fanfare underscored by a sinuous string line, quickly transitions to a seething, turbulent Allegro vivace. A window is immediately opened into Schumann’s troubled soul. A restive second movement Scherzo gives way to an Adagio espressivo of heart-breaking beauty, while the final movement, resolute, joyous and defiant, suggests that when this was written, Schumann was going through a period of recovery. The ASMF played throughout with agility and warmth, particularly in the strings and woodwind. They also conveyed a sense of immediacy and urgency, helped in large measure by the size and comparative intimacy of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. An impressive performance to be sure, yet it was Paganini’s concerto which proves that the old devil still has the best tunes, and the wizardry of Joshua Bell and his Strad which will live in the memory.

Chris Sallon

1 thought on “Joshua Bell and the ASMF: blazing Paganini proves that the devil still has the best tunes”

  1. Such a memorable evening and thank you!! A concert 🎶 🎻 I shall always remember!! I can’t wait for Joshua Bell to return to England for more! I will be there!! I have never heard something quite like this and the orchestra were amazing to keep up!! Wonderful!!!


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