As Joshua Bell launched into the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D minor, I closed my eyes for a few moments to imagine hearing it as a commuter on the Washington DC metro. Bell had been the subject of a social experiment by the Washington Post some years ago, posing as an anonymous early morning busker to gauge reactions to exceptional art in a mundane setting, and this was the challenging piece he chose to play. As it turned out, virtually everyone passed by without a second glance and in the space of 45 minutes a total of $32.17 was tossed into his open violin case. By contrast, a sold-out Symphony Hall audience (with the exception of lucky press ticket holders) paid good money for this rendition, arranged for violin and string orchestra.

Joshua Bell © Eric Kabik
Joshua Bell
© Eric Kabik

Bell displayed a lovely rapport with the conductor-less Academy of St Martin in the Fields, of which he’s recently become Music Director, the only person to have that role since Sir Neville Marriner’s formation of the orchestra in 1958. Throughout this piece and the rest of the programme all players showed a pleasing chemistry, resulting in a warm sound that was both intimate and inviting. A conversational atmosphere emerged, particularly where plucked orchestral strings provided a luscious delicacy in support of Bell’s virtuosity. The cadenza had me wondering how on earth a human being could possibly play that fast, only for Bach to then slow the pace right down for the soulful finish such that the audience finally breathed out again.

Bell was in his element playing the Brahms Violin Concerto and directing it at the same time, with plenty of body language, in which even his floppy fringe played a part! Appropriately enough, Brahms composed this piece for violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim, who received huge acclaim for the first movement’s cadenza, which the composer had left unwritten in deference to his friend’s musical prowess. Tonight’s crowd relished Bell’s take on this section with pin-drop attention, then burst into inter-movement applause after the beauty and explosive drama of the coda. The soloist himself had a moment or two to catch his breath and step out of the spotlight while the oboe, supported by woodwind colleagues, launched the Adagio, which the violin then beautifully echoed and embroidered, exploring a variety of keys. The finale took us into Hungarian territory, the country of Joachim’s birth. The playful folk dance rhythms were a breath of fresh air and I could sense a collective foot-tapping. A brief period of a calmer tempo intervened, to be followed by a transformation of the gypsy theme into an accented, exciting march in which the flutes in particular added to the general high spirits.

After the interval Bell directed Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony from the leader’s chair – or virtually out of it at times. His energy was reflected by the whole ensemble, and there was an atmosphere of intense concentration and a sense of urgency, an urge to convey the necessary heroism, in fact. Beethoven’s original dedicatee for this tribute to the life of a hero had been Napoleon, whom he admired for his brilliant military career. However he changed his tune, so to speak, when Napoleon claimed the title of Emperor, seeing this as an act of personal ambition. The dedication was struck out of the original manuscript with such force that a chunk of the title page was also damaged.

The first movement could be described as heroic in dimension alone, weighing in at 20 minutes, and is full of vigour and power. The familiar tune of the second movement’s funeral march was emotive and moving, Bell conducting with his bow, wringing out the cellos’ low notes as well as the soaring melody of the oboe, representative of the afterlife. Brass and timpani also created plenty of impact, leading eventually to the movement’s poised, sombre close. The Scherzo provided some contrasting light relief, with an accomplished horn trio. The many variations of the Finale showed off the composer’s inventiveness as well as affording opportunities to showcase specific instruments or sections. All too brief was a string quartet, exquisitely executed with Bell at the helm.

Several curtain calls followed, until Bell gave an apologetic shrug and pointed to his watch as though they had places to go. With repeat performances lined up in Manchester, Edinburgh and London in the week ahead, indeed they did. Worth the trip if you can, whether by car, bus or metro.