The Academy of St Martin in the Fields can seem like chamber music’s family silver: a precious set that comes out of the display cabinet only on special occasions, while regular china or rustic earthenware are to hand for everyday use. You’ll read misty-eyed nostalgia about the orchestra’s ‘heyday’; but on the evidence of this sparkling Wigmore Hall concert that day is now. Note to self: hear them more often. Under the inspirational direction of Joshua Bell, he of the portrait in the attic, the ASMF delivered a programme of typical brilliance: a first half of hallmark classics then a riotously entertaining novelty by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla.

Joshua Bell © Bill Phelps
Joshua Bell
© Bill Phelps

With violin and viola players on their feet à la Aurora Orchestra, they dispatched Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major in short order. It was classy, zippy and old-school (as opposed to very old school, since the instruments were as unfashionably modern as you like) with ensemble playing so precise I felt giddy. This was followed by a return to a standard string orchestra layout for a work with which the orchestra has long been identified, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

It’s likely that listeners of a certain age will have first encountered this work (and possibly the Academy itself) through an early Argo LP under Neville Marriner that coupled it with the Souvenir de Florence. Great though it was, that recording has nothing over this latest performance. Bell, directing from the leader’s chair, threw his body and lasso-brandished his bow in order to wring the music’s romance from his 20 players. In the opening Andante he elicited a tone that made this most mellow of London acoustics sound like a vaulted church. With a sheen of upper strings and basses that resounded like subwoofers, it was a wonder.

If the first movement was lushly classical in feel, the Valse that followed sounded thoroughly symphonic and a well-behaved elder brother to the Sixth Symphony’s wayward equivalent. The viola section was especially lustrous here. In a striking effect, Bell stripped bare his tone after the final note of Tchaikovsky’s third movement, Élégie, for his entry (on the same note) into the finale’s Andante prelude. From upholstered to ascetic in a single bound… then headlong into a whirlwind Allegro con spirito. Heady stuff!

Piazzolla did not compose a Four Seasons for violin solo and string orchestra but that has not stopped Leonid Desyatnikov from putting him right. The Cuatro estaciones porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) started life as music for the composer’s quintet of bandoneon, violin, piano, electric guitar and bass, but the more classically freighted arrangement played by Bell and the ASMF was commissioned by Gidon Kremer five years after the composer’s death.

Played in the order Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, the four movements quote Vivaldi liberally and other composers cheekily (Pachelbel’s Canon all but shrieks out at one point), yet they are a kaleidoscope of harmonic effects with players producing sounds from every corner of their instruments, however improbable. Summer opens with the snakiest of harmonic slides to the accompaniment of percussive knocks and plucked bass snaps, then ends on a downward slide to oblivion. In Autumn the cicadas are out in force; Winter is Hollywood and fireworks, with slow scoops and fast swoops on violins underpinned by an accompaniment of thick, ripe harmonies.

If Spring is thematically the least interesting movement of the four, characterised as it is by the repetitious spiralling style of 1960s French film music, at least it holds the attention. It took a long time for Piazzolla to achieve a breakthrough in the UK, possibly because he was too catchy for the opinion-makers of his time who were notoriously suspicious of melody. This 25-minute fiesta would have had such people scurrying for the exit, but today’s more rounded Wigmore Hall audience lapped it up.

These Four Seasons seem destined to be the makeweight on some new recording of Vivaldi’s concerto quartet, and we may not have long to wait because Bell and the Academy have those little rarities up next (at Cadogan Hall on 12 January). Meanwhile, as a Latin-American encore the American virtuoso reprised Estrillita, the delightful miniature by Manuel Ponce that he’d played at the Proms ten years ago. Que delicioso!

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