The Barbican is one of the larger venues that the Academy of St Martin in the Fields appear in, and with its sizeable capacity and unforgiving acoustics, I was apprehensive as to the impact the group would make. These fears proved entirely unfounded from the very opening of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, which started with a bracing opening chord and continued at a vigorous pace. The sound that the ensemble produced easily filled the hall, but it was the sheer energy, clearly inspired by Joshua Bell’s animated leading style, that made the performance even more imposing. Timpanist Adrian Bending’s solos were refreshingly forthright, and added to the sense of momentum. Whilst the work is a pastiche, it is important that it is a given a sense of individuality and does not descend into straight parody. This was achieved, and there was a real sense of cobwebs being dusted from this perennial favourite. One of the Academy’s current strengths, unsurprisingly, is its string playing, and it was wonderful to hear, particularly in the first and last movements, Prokofiev’s nimble string passages being played with clarity and enjoying a welcome prominence in the balance.

Joshua Bell © Timothy White
Joshua Bell
© Timothy White
After an invigorating opening, and with a slightly augmented horn section, the Academy returned to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell acting both as soloist and leader. This is an uncommon approach in post-Classical era concertos, and particularly daring in a work that requires the coordinator of many virtuosic displays from orchestra and soloist alike. Joshua Bell has always played with a captivating sense of freedom, even when sharing the stage, and interpretation, with many a world class conductor. There was an even greater sense of liberation, having assumed both roles, and he set a quicker-than-average pace for the first movement. This experiment might not have been so successful had it been a dialogue between an employed soloist and orchestra, but the rapport Bell and the Academy have built was evident in the easy, free-flowing dynamic between them. There were times when more variety would have been welcomed, Bell attacked the cadenza in an unrelenting manner that lacked some nuance, and occasionally, particularly in the last movement, the excitement came at the expense of precision. It was, nonetheless, an exhilarating and engrossing performance. 

There was no let up in the second half, where the players gave an intense and very convincing performance of Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor. The ensemble was well-proportioned for Mozart, the string section did not dominate the woodwinds and brass, and as in the Prokofiev, the balance between the string instruments were impeccable, allowing the complex, antiphonal writing to shine through with great clarity. Whilst individual passages were phrased with care, the symphony did lack the sense of an overall vision, although to a large extent it is unlikely that Mozart conceived his symphonies with the same sense of overriding structure as later composers. However, this lack of large-scale shape, did show in the slow movement, in which the frequent repetition lacked some character. However, that was one of the few moments where the energy dipped in what was an arresting concert, which left me, and no doubt many in the audience, hoping that Joshua Bell's tenure might rival Neville Marriner's in length, invention and revelation.