What lover of 19th century romantic music could fail to have high expectations for such a concert? Before us we had one of the world’s great chamber orchestras led by an internationally celebrated violinist joined by a cello legend playing a well thought-out programme of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák and Schumann. In the main, these expectations were met, even surpassed on occasion. Yet, what for me could have been a superlative concert was enjoyed merely as a very good one. Ironically I felt that two of the distinctive features of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields – being conducted by the first violin and its perfect section balance – actually hindered them slightly, particularly in the Beethoven. Nonetheless, the wonderful playing of Steven Isserlis transported me from my state of detached observer to an ethereal realm and I left the concert much contented.

Steven Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi
Mr Isserlis opened with Antonin Dvořák’s “Silent Woods”, taken from The Bohemian Forest. The lush warm string sounds that the ASMF produced were weighted sensuously, supporting the light lyrical vibrancy that sang out from the aged wood of his Marquis de Coberon Stradivarius. His deft use of vibrato did not draw attention to itself as with some other cellists, his sound being of such quality that he simply does not need to overdo it. The piece itself was new to me, but was instantly appealing and accessible, setting out and returning to the whimsical sylvan sublime with an unmistakably Czech folk motif in the middle. Although only five minutes long, by the time Isserlis had finished drawing his bow slowly across his string on the final note, letting it drift out through the hall to the upper circle and into the ceiling, the audience below was clearly won over.

However, while the work was audibly successful I had begun to be a little distracted visually. Joshua Bell, conducting from first violin, was not actually on a chair but a piano stool. This enabled him to rock back and forth, lurch up, and sway emphatically left and right, conducting the orchestra not with the tip of a baton or his bow, but with his whole frame and the natural bounce of his hair. This was a conducting style that he was to take with him into Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor, even stomping his foot on one occasion. While I was endeavouring to focus on the soundscape I found the physicality of his leadership was not helpful. His physicality, however, did lend some energy to the enjoyable and interesting performance of the Beethoven. I have heard it many times before, as I am sure we all have, played by large symphony orchestras both in concert and on recording. To hear it played by a chamber orchestra the size of the ASMF is probably much closer to the sound envisaged by the composer. While familiarity often breeds contempt with works as well-known as this, Bell allowed me to enjoy the symphony afresh, hearing aspects that have hitherto failed to secure my attention especially the string pizzicato in the scherzo and the wonderful trombone trio in the finale.

Despite this I felt that the trumpets needed to more prominent in the triumphalism of the second movement and the horns needed to break ranks and drive a little more in the first. It felt to me that the brass and woodwind were restraining themselves in general, with only the percussionist becoming animated. It was all very well played, but just too perfectly balanced, and therefore some of the passion was stifled.

Thankfully the piano stool was absent as the audience returned to their seats for a second half featuring the second movement Langsam of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor (WoO, codetta by Benjamin Britten), and Johannes Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. The first of these two pieces, written immediately before Schumann's suicide attempt, is rarely performed. Bell did not waste the opportunity to demonstrate the tender romantic lyricism of his playing and he wrought out of his strings a bitter-sweet melancholy befitting of both the piece and his reputation.

The best was yet to come though, as the Brahms concerto featured partnership playing at the very highest level. The orchestra provided a faultless canvas upon which Isserlis drew light and shade beneath Bell’s wonderful detail. Sat centre-stage with his distinctive mop of hair doing its own thing, one could clearly see that Isserlis was joyously living this music with every fibre of his being and his enthusiasm was contagious. The musical understanding the two soloists share was audibly manifest, their phrasing was seamlessly matched, and their cohesive interplay and interpretation will be the lasting memory of the performance.