Joshua Bell and the Academy Of St Martin In The Fields: Energetic and New

Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 (“Classical”)
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Director and soloist: Joshua Bell (violin)

11/11/2015

With three popular works, all less than 45 minutes long, the programme for Wednesday’s night’s concert at the Barbican was not going to present too many difficulties for its listeners. The real challenge, then, for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble (ASMF) was making these frequently performed concert hall staples fresh and inspiring, rather than repetitive and dull.

Joshua Bell & the Academy of St Martin in the Fields_c.Gan Yuan2

Joshua Bell & the Academey of St Martin in the Fields © Gan Yuan

Fortunately, the ASMF’s particular setup gives them an opportunity to distinguish their performance from others. Although the ensemble welcomes guest conductors, they are largely conductor-less. Instead, they are led from the first desk of the violins by the superstar American violinist Joshua Bell – the ensemble’s Music Director since 2011. Bell is therefore a participant in the performance. Rather than overseeing the performance as a distant conductor, he directs the ASMF whilst submerged in the music.

This may explain why the opening work, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical”, was taken at a bracing speed. The ASMF’s ability to bound full-throttle into the first movement was impressive. Their playing was energetic, capturing the first movement’s fun bombasticity and the third’s playful dynamic contrasts. But without the outside influence of a conductor, there was no one to keep a rein on the adrenaline. Going full-speed ahead meant the delicacy required for contrasting moments of sweetness and that electrifying energy bubbling beneath in the quieter passages was sadly missing.

Bell continued to push ahead in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, where he stepped forward to take on the role of the soloist. His sound was undoubtedly beautiful, and he had a wonderful ability to portray multiple expressions: varying from innocent, lamenting, joyful to hopeful. It was only slightly disappointing that he did not linger more on Tchaikovsky’s stunning melodies.

But witnessing Bell lead the ensemble and play along with the first violins, as well as performing the demanding solo was something rather unique. Whilst it was common for concertos by Beethoven and earlier composers to be led by the soloist (a practice that some modern performances imitate), the bigger orchestras demanded by Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky made a conductor necessary. So even though Bell has performed the Violin Concerto countless times, this was the first time he also directed it.

Joshua Bell & the Academy of St Martin in the Fields_c.Gan Yuan1

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields ©  Gan Yuan

Yet this arrangement worked delightfully. Instead of coming in as a guest soloist, Bell played the solo as a member of the ASMF. He has a familiar relationship with the ensemble, meaning that this concerto could – rather astonishingly – gain the same kind of intimacy as a chamber music performance. Rather than relying on a conductor’s gestures, the ASMF had to be led by Bell’s playing. Their listening was therefore on a heightened level, illustrated by their alert responses to Bell’s subtle changes in tempo. Perhaps surprisingly, given there was no conductor controlling the ASMF’s volume, the balance was especially good as Bell had no difficulties in being heard. When the ASMF returned full-pelt after accompanying, we were treated to some magnificent orchestral entrances. The ASMF may be smaller than other orchestras, but they nevertheless know how to produce these exciting and full-blown orchestral sections.

The ASMF maintained their energy throughout the evening, which certainly gave excitement to Mozart’s overplayed Symphony No. 40. Here the ASMF succeeded in producing the buzzing energy required during more delicate moments for the music to stay exciting. The third movement Menuetto was markedly speedy, but the ASMF still captured the required pompousness for the dance. It was an exuberant performance. The AMSF have played the work countless times before, but their enthusiasm and energy meant you could almost believe it was something thrillingly new.

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