Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields played to an almost packed Cadogan Hall on Thursday and were both virtuosic and charismatic. Although they were undoubtedly thrilling to watch, they entertained us in the magnificent music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn without any unnecessary showmanship or bravado. Considering each artist is a talent, their modesty is exemplary, as is Joshua Bell’s, who skipped on and off the stage during the bouts of thunderous applause, keen to attribute the ovation to the orchestra. Bell, who cuts a dashing figure in a black shirt and waistcoat, plays violin and conducts with such passion and vigour, it seemed astounding that no note was ever out, no entry was late, pianissimos effortlessly accounted for. Such is their artistry and trust in one another that they played as one body. Having honed this programme on a recent European tour, Bell wrote in the programme, “we hope to present tonight’s concert in peak form"!

Joshua Bell © Chris Lee
Joshua Bell
© Chris Lee

Beethoven composed his overture to Goethe’s play about the Count Egmont's unsuccessful attempts to free the 16th-century Netherlands from its Spanish oppressors and his subsequent execution. Beethoven’s highly driven strings and frequent climaxes match this drama and from the first down-bow, so did they – it was electric with the woodwinds replying to the strings, building up to a storm released at the pinnacle of thrilling musical abandon. Yet they remained in perfect unison, even with Bell throwing himself physically into this music. On a freezing January night, it certainly warmed everyone up. 

Breath was suspended with Bell’s opening solo line in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. This is the main recurring theme and Bell played it straight – without indulgence but with huge tenderness, rendering the audience to jelly and craving for more. Standing at the front of the stage he held the hall, players and punters alike, challenging concentration to waiver which it never did. The second theme was marked by distinguished playing from the flutes and clarinets, answered by Bell with his own cadenza returning ingeniously to the opening passage. The threat of an end was saved by a lone bassoonist leading into the exquisite ‘song without words’ slow movement – a moment to wallow – but this was disallowed by Bell who quite rightly swept powerfully on into the final movement enforcing spine-tingling revelations from the orchestration. The Allegro molto vivace was played humorously, the dancing element so light, almost as if the orchestra was playing on candyfloss. 

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major is the aptly named “Pastoral”, evocative of lounging in a green meadow. But again, Bell’s energy and urgency was contagious and he maintained the errant rhythmic notes in perfect synchrony with the melody while never losing the emotion of the piece. In the Scene by the brook the orchestra played with an almost veiled sound, soft-grained like velvet but with extraordinary agility. 

This was Bell’s first concert in London since the death of Sir Neville Marriner, the ASMF's founder. He would have been extremely proud of such profound and brilliant music-making.