Revolutionaries, in the musical world as elsewhere, inevitably cut a dashing figure; modernists have the Zeitgeist on their side. Spare a thought though for the traditionalists, those that put consonance above dissonance; they have never stopped delighting audiences with their facility for enchanting the ear. The four pieces that made up this concert given by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with Joshua Bell as both soloist and director, had at their core a celebration of melody pure and simple.

Joshua Bell © Bill Phelps
Joshua Bell
© Bill Phelps

In his early flirt with neoclassicism, Prokofiev set out to cock a snook at those in revolutionary Russia he called “Philistines”. That even extended to the title of his “Classical” Symphony. A lot of the writing bristles with good humour and wit: the brief Gavotte third movement is virtually a caricature of Baroque dance forms. It was the composer’s tongue-in-cheek approach that I missed in Bell’s interpretation, the bassoon counterpoint in the opening movement coming across as distinctly po-faced. Moreover, in a strongly string-led reading the detail in wind and brass was often left to look after itself. The propulsion behind the sharp-edged precision was in evidence throughout, colouring even the Larghetto, where a sense of slight restlessness was never quite dispelled. The lake was not completely still, the surface always a little ruffled.

Over the years I have heard Bell in all the great concertos of the violin repertoire; I have never heard him give a bad or indifferent performance. This reading of Tchaikovsky's concerto, honed over a recent European tour, displayed many of the qualities with which Bell has been consistently associated. There was his opulent tone, his immaculate intonation and the intense musicality of his phrasing which brought freshness to a concerto he has played innumerable times. His first entry revealed an element of nervous, excitable energy which pointed towards the rhapsodic rather than classical restraint. This was picked up later in a clutch of agogic distortions and an occasional tendency to snatch at introductory phrases. However, these idiosyncrasies merely served to underline the passion and sensuousness present in the symphonic sweep of the first movement, the lyrical glow of the Canzonetta and the irrepressible vitality of the finale. This was Tchaikovsky with a beating heart, the long, gradually evolving melodic arches soaring effortlessly heavenwards. Quite extraordinary coordination was required, and achieved, between the ASMF and the soloist, with Harvey de Souza’s discreet sub-conducting ensuring superb ensemble, especially in the closing moments of the outer movements where the samovar was allowed to bubble with a thrilling intensity.

We have Toscanini to thank for the arrangement for string orchestra that Samuel Barber made of the Adagio from his 1936 string quartet. While the composer was being lavished with praise in some quarters – and this Adagio was one of the few American works to be played in the Soviet Union during the period of the Cold War – his music was also being attacked by modernists as totally anachronistic. Bell steered a judicious course between the over-emotive and the bland.

Bizet’s Symphony in C major is one of those works, like Berwald’s Sinfonie singulière, which is played not nearly enough. When asked to account for this, one British conductor commented, “Because it’s so (expletive deleted) difficult to play.” Bell and the ASMF made light of the many technical challenges, not the least of which are the numerous crescendo molto markings in all four movements. When followed precisely, as here, there is an infectious sense of swell and surge that contributes to an overriding joie de vivre. Haydn is often recommended to sufferers of SAD in order to lighten the mood; there is nothing to beat Bizet’s youthful high spirits when delivered with such utter conviction. The excellence of the ASMF strings was heard to full effect in the scampering light-footedness of the finale which bordered on intoxication. What also emerged in this performance was Bell’s awareness of the symphony’s stylistic forefathers: Mendelssohn in its graceful lyricism, Beethoven in its dramatic flourishes, Gounod in its Gallic piquancy. The Andante in particular was consistently satisfying, the beautiful variations in tonal colour and kinetic power giving point and purpose to each individual detail, such as Gordon Hunt’s magical oboe solo and the ormolu-like contributions from the brass.

As it enters its 60th birthday season, the ASMF has claims to being one of the most classical of chamber orchestras. Its sound, moulded initially by Sir Neville Marriner, has evolved under Bell to incorporate some of the qualities more characteristic of period ensembles. There were moments of sharpness in this concert which certainly emphasised this transition but which also reminded me of a missing dramaturgical element. After so much tunefulness and lashings of whipped cream, I had missed a palate-cleanser: contrasting astringency that makes the richness stand out even more.

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