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S & H Concert Review

Bach, Haydn, Schubert (arr. Mahler), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell (Vln & Conductor), Wigmore Hall, 7th February, 2003 (MB)


This concert, Joshua Bell’s London debut as Music Director of the ASMF, had the hallmarks of an interesting meeting of minds – and so it proved, with the synergy between soloist and orchestra palpable. Even if Bell’s conducting technique leaves a lot to be desired (rarely, if ever, do we get a down beat, for example) the sheer vibrancy of the performances demonstrated a real security of musicianship. Using largely his body, and swaying like a metronome, he enticed from his 17 string players (and single harpsicordist) a richness of sound in both the Bach A minor and Haydn C major violin concertos that belied the orchestra’s size (even in this acoustic).

The Bach opened with considerable panache, although Bell’s often electrifying solo line was blemished by some unusually coarse bow-against-string phrasing. Despite that, the Vivaldian glow of this work, with its florid writing for the solo violin, emerged largely as it should, and in the central andante, Bell encouraged the orchestra to play with a refinement of touch that matched his own poetic tone. The infectiousness of the jig-like allegro reminded us how virtuosic Bach’s concertos are.

Haydn’s C major concerto benefited from a similar beauty of timbre, even if the work is singularly lacking in intensity. Bell emblazoned the opening movement with an incandescent brightness of tone, although perhaps using his own highly charged cadenza somewhat over gilded the lily. Nevertheless, it proved a rousing, if unmonumental, close to the first half of this concert.

Schubert’s great D minor Quartet, orchestrated by Mahler, framed the final half – and it was given a fabulous performance, as anguished as any I have heard in this orchestration. Whilst it is possible to argue that Mahler’s orchestration robs the work of its inherent intimacy (and this is after all one of Schubert’s most highly personal inspirations, ‘Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, even makes things worse and worse…’, he wrote in 1824) it is also possible to argue that the projection of Schubert’s volatile string writing benefits from the broader sonorities, and dynamics, of the orchestration. Bell’s and the ASMF’s performance displayed no lack of soullessness, nor reduced the scale of the terror of sombre resignation so inherent in the work’s opening two movements. Indeed, with metrical freedom apparent throughout the performance the range of emotions was exemplarily defined.

Marc Bridle


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