The first Sydney concert of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields took place before a virtual capacity crowd; one suspects that this was in large part because of the star quality of its artistic director, Joshua Bell. Given the long tenure of his predecessor, the late Sir Neville Marriner, who led the orchestra for over half a century, Bell still seems ‘new’ to the job, although he has in fact been at the helm since 2011. Unlike Marriner, Bell is a performer-director in the manner of Richard Tognetti, although on Saturday night’s showing the Academy is a much more physically reserved and programmatically conservative band than the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

The ASMF and Joshua Bell © Ken Leanfore
The ASMF and Joshua Bell
© Ken Leanfore

One important difference between the two chamber orchestras is that the British group is seated, while the Australians stand. This has major consequences for the ease with which directions can be given from the concertmaster position. Bell had virtually no elevation advantage from his seat on a piano stool, whereas Tognetti typically stands on a riser and is both more visible and more easily able to move about. At the start of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Bell played only intermittently, generally joining his first violin comrades only for the good bits, such as when they took over the second theme from the cellos. Most of the time he was gesturing from his seat with body and bow to the other sections of the orchestra, not the happiest compromise of playing and directing functions. As he and the orchestra warmed up, his directions became less frequent and less urgent, to the viewers’ greater comfort. The orchestra displayed the traditional British affinity for Mendelssohn’s music: the sea swells were restrained but evocative, and the clarinet restatement of the second theme late the work was beautifully phrased.

Pleasant though this was, the performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto lifted the evening onto another plane. Now standing centre of the stage, Bell gave a real tour de force performance in the dual roles of soloist and conductor. The acting concertmaster gave a few supplementary gestures to the orchestra when the soloist’s attention was otherwise occupied. Bell’s tone was huge and warm, a happy combination for this robust and yet ardently romantic work. He had a highly sympathetic backing from his co-musicians, who were capable of plenty of gusto when the occasion warranted it (such as the explosion into the last movement). The cadenza in the first movement was particularly special: this familiar passage came across as something newly minted, and Bell didn’t have to descend into wilful eccentricity to achieve this effect. This was one of those rare moments when one felt the entire hall frozen with concentration, captivated by a true virtuoso musician. At the end of the movement, the enthusiasm of the crowd broke forth spontaneously; hang the propriety of applauding between movements! My only wish is that Bell had conveyed facially how much fun he was having in the manic last movement: it sounded wonderful, but looked a little dogged.

The ASMF and Joshua Bell © Ken Leanfore
The ASMF and Joshua Bell
© Ken Leanfore

Things couldn’t stay at this exalted level, and the Schumann/Britten concerto movement at the start of the second half sounded rather pallid by comparison; Bell himself seemed less engaged, symptomized by his use of the score here. There were moments where the cello (an almost equal partner in the duet with the violin) was pressing ahead of the orchestra.

Things picked up again in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, which was given a performance of controlled exuberance. In the joyous first movement there was a nice subcurrent of pulsating energy from the winds backing a poised statement of the melody on the violins. The processional second movement (a touch on the quick side for my taste) flowed easily; nothing too deep in the sentiments here. Again, the minuet was smooth, in keeping with the overall approach, with fine playing from the horns in the trio. Perhaps this is the right approach to take when performing the work of a composer known as the classical Romantic. However I couldn’t help but wish that the final Tarantella at least had been played with more abandon: in other hands, it can be exhilarating, even orgiastic, but here the party was tempered by consideration for the neighbours and never got out of hand. As it went on, it did begin to catch fire, but (to borrow a term from sporting parlance), this wasn’t a performance which left everything on the pitch. The encore was the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings Op.48, delivered with an appealing mixture of swagger and archness.