The Academy of St Martin in the Fields is a world renowned, London-based chamber orchestra, formed in 1958 under the supervision of Neville Marriner, a violinist who became the group’s Music Director and conductor. That role was passed on to the American violinist Joshua Bell in 2011, and this was our first chance to hear him with the ensemble in Australia (although he toured here in 2013 as a soloist). This, their second concert in as many nights, consisted of a Classical period programme: Mozart’s Symphony No 25 and Violin Concerto No 4, followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, the Eroica.

Joshua Bell and Academy of St Martin in the FieldsJoshua Bell and Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Photos © Ken Leanfore

The ASMF strings, led from the first desk by the vigorous Bell, were notable for their precision, and unanimity of articulation and expression. Their incisive attack and swift tempos suggested an influence of period performance practice, although there were also highly expressive moments: I liked the deliberate broadening of tempo for the oboe’s theme in the first movement of Symphony No 25. This symphony, known as the “Little G Minor” to contrast it with No 40, is an early work of Mozart, written in 1773 in the ‘sturm und drang’ style of middle-period Haydn, hearkening back to CPE Bach. I thought the Andante was a trifle subdued, considering the liveliness of the surrounding movements, and the important oboe line was not prominent enough in the balance in the trio section of the third movement.

Mozart’s Violin Concertos 2 through 5 are also early works. The sunny Fourth in D Major, K. 218, received a lovable performance, light on its feet and luminous. Bell plays the Huberman Stradivarius (a violin that was already 62 years old when this concerto was first performed), notable for its bright, gleaming top, especially in harmonics, and a more earthy sound in the lower register. Bell dispatched the solo part with a delightfully light touch, adding his own dazzling but not anachronistic cadenzas. He and the orchestra made a feature of the contrasting episodes in the cheery finale rather than going for integration, which brought a delectable surprise element to the Rondeau‘s changes of pace.

Joshua Bell and Academy of St Martin in the FieldsJoshua Bell and Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Photos © Ken Leanfore

Textural light and shade was the prime characteristic of their reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The massive sound of a full orchestra that can make this such a commanding work (notably in the Funeral March movement) was not recreated by the chamber ensemble, understandably, but having said that, the volume they produced when required was remarkable and perfectly in proportion. Bell moved the first movement along swiftly (again, in period style), but not the Funeral March, where he controlled an admirably expressive overview, bringing out important details and colours. The Scherzo was fleet, Mendelssohnian in its lightness, and concluded with such aplomb that it brought a whoop from a member of the audience. Plenty of grandeur and energy in the finale brought the rest of the audience to their feet.

This was an invigorating concert. Joshua Bell and his colleagues clearly enjoyed working with each other, and it showed in their facial expressions, but primarily in their high level of commitment to making music. With this conductor, ASMF started to record the Beethoven Symphonies for Sony (Bell’s label for the last ten years or so), though the promised complete set seemed to terminate four years ago after Nos 4 and 7. Hopefully they will continue and give us their No 3, and also recordings of Mozart’s Violin Concertos. Tonight’s performance of the concerto made some recorded versions by very famous names sound stodgy indeed.

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields perform at Brisbane’s QPAC on April 26 & 27


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