Violinist Joshua Bell is now Music Director of the Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields, and he appears here playing and directing the Bach solo violin concertos. He seems not to have recorded Bach before, although he is eloquent about Bach’s importance to him in the CD booklet and in the online promotional footage for this release. If you feared this would be just another star violinist getting round to Bach only because he has already recorded the rest of the central repertoire, set your mind at rest. Bell manages to sound both as if he has played this music all his life, and as if he is approaching it with the freshness of new discovery. These are not ‘period’ performances, but that matters less nowadays when most performances, whatever the instruments employed, are informed by period practice. Thus we have little or only light vibrato, sprightly tempi and tight articulation whenever the solo part is more intricately decorated. So it will seem quite bracing enough if you have never ventured beyond David Oistrakh, but won’t send devotees of such classic old school performances scurrying from the room.
The opening of the A minor concerto might make you sit up - it is very swiftly out of the blocks, and the movement is dispatched in just 3:17. Is that ‘too fast’? For comparison just from my own shelves, period performances from Rachel Podger (Channel Classics), Elizabeth Wallfisch (Virgin Classics), and the Freiburg Baroque (Harmonia Mundi) take quite a bit longer; 3:47, 3:59 and 3:50 respectively. Contrary to expectation it is the more recent ‘non-period’ performers like Bell who prefer a fast tempo in this movement, with Hilary Hahn on DG and Victoria Mullova — on her earlier recording from Philips in 2000 — needing only 3:30 and 3:21. Bell’s 3:17 doesn’t just win the race, it does so without sounding rushed, as he and his splendid ASMF string players offer crisp articulation and plenty of detail. The andante
, by contrast, is more leisurely in the traditional manner, but still ‘in scale’ in terms of baroque expression, never seeming proto-romantic. The allegro assai
of the finale does full justice to its high-stepping 9/8 gigue, with each episode of the ritornello form nicely characterized. Bell provides the same driving energy as director and soloist in the outer movements of the splendid E major concerto, again with a very affecting slow movement in which Bell gives plenty of room for the music to breathe — the marking after all is adagio
The couplings are unusual and possibly controversial. The usual couplings for the solo concertos would include some combination of the Concerto for two violins BWV 1043 — as the Freiburg Baroque and most others provide — or the Concerto for violin, oboe and strings BWV1060 as on the Hahn and Mullova discs. Alternatively they may be served up with arrangements for violin and strings of some of the harpsichord concertos as on Rachel Podger’s outstanding Channel Classics SACDs from 2010 and 2013. Here we have none of those works, or any further complete works; just three extracts. There is the ‘Air on a G string’
from the third suite, and a pair of arrangements from two of the partitas for solo violin, one of the great Chaconne from the D minor partita, and the other of the delightful Gavotte from the E major partita. There will probably
never be an end to the arranging of Bach’s music, but here we have arrangements of arrangements. The starting points are the versions with piano accompaniment by Mendelssohn and Schumann, used as the basis for string arrangements by Julian Milone. In the Gavotte this works fairly well, the accompaniment for the most part discreetly supportive.
The Chaconne is, in Bell’s own words in the booklet, “the “crown jewel” - perhaps the most perfect and “complete” piece of music ever written for the violin.” Well might he put that word “complete” in quotes, since he then plays a version which some will find ‘over-complete’ since the string band sometimes feels redundant in such a work. I recall one of my tutors exclaiming “Only someone as bloody-minded as Bach would write a chaconne – a piece with an ever-present bass line – for a single instrument with just four strings.” Here the astonishment we often feel at Bach’s ability to challenge the player, and to conjure a world of feeling from such limited means, is rather muted. It all sounds more secure than the solo version does — a bit like watching a tightrope walker who is only a foot above the ground. A pity Joshua Bell did not send the ASMF home a little early from the sessions and record the Chaconne solo, since he is as excellent in these pieces as he is in the concertos. He might even have given us both versions; with a 50 minute playing time it’s tempting to be greedy for yet more of Bell’s superb playing. That said, let me not drift into reviewing items that are not
on the disc, and note in fairness that Bell himself asks of this Chaconne arrangement “why mess with greatness?”. He then simply points out that we have here “yet another way to experience this profound and ever-intriguing work”.
The recorded sound is satisfying enough, with the solitary bass player’s line always in good focus, a rather reticent balance for the harpsichord continuo, and the usual slightly larger-than-life image for the solo violin. In summary, not perhaps the place to start a collection of Bach solo concertos – some of the others mentioned earlier will provide more satisfying introductions. However, on its on own terms this is an undoubted success. If the unusual programme appeals, you will find exhilarating and affecting playing here from both the Academy and their brilliant Director.