The musicians got on a bus to their next destination as the audience left the music hall. What had happened no longer was. Yet so much had changed after two Beethoven symphonies and Bruch’s violin concerto, all totems of the staple repertoire. In the hands of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, they became almost as palpable as a drawing. The Academy is a perfectly balanced ecosystem. Just like a coral reef, it comes across as a unit but is in fact made up of individuals who are all required for the balance to be maintained. They have a solid stage presence and breathe together through every single bar.

Josuah Bell © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Josuah Bell
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The opening of Beethoven’s First was enough to confirm what we had all got ourselves into: impeccable attacks, a perfect equilibrium among instruments and mind-blowing accuracy were all there in bar one, and never left the stage. The Academy found every nuance in the music and offered a generous performance where each and every instrument had something to say. There was fun too – contagious fun, luminous fun.

Referring to this piece, Berlioz famously said: “Beethoven is not there. We will find him [in later works]”. With all due respect, I could not disagree more. What never ceases to amaze me about this symphony is precisely how much of Beethoven’s past we see; how much of his future we can fathom. Between the notes hides the unruly student of Haydn, who nevertheless evidently soaked up so much from him. Within each silence we can hear the immensity of the music he would produce in years to come. It is a testament to a pivotal moment in the life of a composer who would forever change the way in which we understand music. It literally marked the start of a new century, as it premiered in 1800, with Beethoven himself conducting.

In an ensemble as solid as the Academy, it seems unfair to praise any particular performance. Yet there was Bruch, and that inevitable highlight, Joshua Bell. His very judicious appointment as the Music Director of the Academy just a couple of years ago is clearly bearing fruit. Bell has the rare quality of being a superb soloist and an equally magnificent concertmaster, leading the orchestra with inexhaustible energy and astuteness.

As a soloist, he offered a concerto bursting with beauty and fragility, and the Academy obliged with loyal accompaniment that gave Bell wings. They remained in perfect synchrony and adapted to the violinist’s needs. Quite how they managed that level of precision in the pizzicati defies any explanation. This all enabled Bell to dive into an intense journey, one where he took the audience too. He brought Bruch’s score to a psychologically charged level that combined nostalgia, distress and calm. There was arguably no programmatic intention in his playing, yet somehow there was something acutely concrete in what he was trying to convey. Some moments of that concert will not easily be forgotten.

Beethoven’s Fifth gave the Academy one last chance, thoroughly grasped, to squeeze every contrast, every harmony and every geniality in the score to the fullest. They were able to display their world-famous versatility in all its glory, sounding both like a symphonic orchestra and like a chamber ensemble at different times, and laying an exhilarating performance before an audience that could have easily started singing along in their enthusiasm.

*****