Though often played with far greater forces, the Beethoven and Mendelssohn played in this concert were well suited to the small size and immediacy of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Directed energetically from the leader’s chair by Joshua Bell, they gave crisp and clear performances which highlighted the chamber-style aspects of these works.

Joshua Bell © Bill Phelps
Joshua Bell
© Bill Phelps

Bell himself was the centre of the concert as soloist in two of the works and a physical presence in leading from his seat. There was never any threat of overdoing it, though: the whole orchestra would bow with him after each piece, and he allowed himself only one solo bow after the Bruch. As soloist he was intense and gained a great deal from being very much part of the orchestra by doubling up as director. There were no musical discrepancies between orchestra and soloist, and he seemed to play as much to them as to the audience. As director, he would periodically drop in and out of the violin line to conduct a passage, all the while impressively animated in physical leadership. Much of his work had clearly been done long before the concert, as the orchestra gave the impression of knowing its own playing very well indeed.

Even in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, very much a product of the Romantic period (composed in 1880) and with full brass and percussion scoring, acute awareness of balance was in evidence throughout. Here the players demonstrated a beautiful sound palette, clearly following each other closely enough even to be able to effect pleasing rubato with the dance tunes of the second and fourth movements whilst maintaining a sharp bite in the strings. The effect was ceilidh-music-for-orchestra, a marked contrast to the warm legato of the slow movements.

A very quick Egmont Overture had earlier anticipated the aggressive precision of the Bruch. The dramatic opening chords, marked as staccato minims, were very short indeed, fitting with the rest of the performance in emphasis on quick agility and crispness. The Allegro in the middle of the work was quick enough to feel more like one-in-a-bar, lilting along with steely tension, and the Allegro con brio coda was an exhilarating, heavily accentuated conclusion.

The Beethoven Romance was moved late in the day to sit before the Bruch in the first half, although it felt as though it would have made a good encore in its lightness and focus on the soloist. There is little escaping the two Romances’ easy contentment, and so there would have been little danger of upstaging the Bruch had this retained its original programme position. As it was, it threatened to be a bulking agent for the first half, despite receiving an excellent reading. The violins’ early hints at the Prometheus Overture were so light and conversational as to feel almost improvisatory, and the orchestra kept well out of the way of the solo for the most part. Bell, by contrast, played with relative intensity and lyrical warmth, finishing with a warm smile.

Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony seems full of very plausible Scots folk tunes, but all are original compositions. This performance made a compelling case for authenticity. The second movement in particular was delightfully agile, aided by a clear string sound and fine navigation of some tricky horn semiquavers. Similarly the first movement allowed every detail of the string playing to be heard in their delicate staccato. The whole performance was full of interesting touches, Bell clearly unafraid of unusual phrasings, which were mostly very effective. He didn’t loiter in the Adagio, keeping up at least of hint of the other movements’ lightness and finding quiet sunniness rather than brooding dourness. The woodwind principals all played with fine articulation alongside relentless bounce in the fourth movement, clear enough and unobstructed by the strings in some delightful counterpoint.

After a fierce climax Bell led his players into a hushed, still moment before a joyful realisation of the concluding melody. Once again, the strings’ clarity translated what can often be a warm but mushy accompaniment into something far more sparkling.