For a split second at the end of Frank Bridge’s five-minute Lament (in memory of Catherine Crompton, one of the youngest casualties of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915), it looked as though Joshua Bell, directing the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, had wanted to emulate what two other conductors had done on preceding evenings. Eliding from one work to the next in an example of musical legerdemain not only helps to make sense of stylistic or thematic connections; it also has the beneficial effect of silencing those who feel compelled to manipulate their hands the moment they espy a break in proceedings. Irritatingly, Bell’s bow hung a touch too long in mid-air and he was unable to give the downbeat for the start of Beethoven’s B flat major symphony before premature applause broke in.

Joshua Bell © Richard Ashcroft
Joshua Bell
© Richard Ashcroft

In any case, this intended transition might not have worked. The Bridge miniature for strings finally comes to rest in the major mode in a state of repose, whereas Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony tiptoes its way through shifting aspects of minor tonality. Not so very long ago the Academy had a reputation for suave and civilised string playing. This Beethoven, however, was more of the street-fighting and barricades variety. Hard-edged and brightly lit, with over-emphatic timpani often highlighting martial elements, the muscular strings tended to dominate the many exchanges with the woodwind. Fair enough, you could say, since Beethoven is the revolutionary composer par excellence. But narrowing the focus in this way, and ignoring Schumann’s tag of it being “a slender Greek maiden” (contrasted with “the two Norse giants” that frame it), inevitably produces a somewhat one-sided and monochrome view of a work which offers a great deal of classical elegance (Haydn is never that far away) and, yes, wit too!

After a ruminative rather than mysterious introduction, the Allegro section was swiftly launched, the contributions from the wind sounding like raindrops splashing against window-panes rather than making much of an impression. In the outer movements there was plenty of vigour, but after a while the slightly mechanistic approach began to pall. Given the right amount of air around the textures this symphony can breathe deeply and engender a feeling of quasi-euphoria in the listener. There were glimpses of this in the slow movement where Bell respected the Adagio marking and lightened the textures with judicious dynamic shadings. A shame though that towards the end of the scherzo he wasn’t alive to the delicious shivers of sound the strings are capable of delivering in their dialogue with the wind and their light skipping figurations sounded merely perfunctory.

The concert had got off to an unpropitious start. Poor tuning in the opening wind chords of the Mendelssohn overture had an unsettling effect, and with Bell directing matters from a piano stool and swaying back and forth energetically he seemed more concerned to paper over the cracks with bags of vigour – the Rude Mechanicals were much in evidence. But where was the refinement, the atmosphere, the sensuousness?

However, concerts have a habit of throwing up surprises. Bell might not be the most insightful of conductors, yet he remains a solo artist of compelling presence. It was Alfred Cortot who described all the concertos that Saint-Saens wrote as revealing “more intelligence than sensibility, more verve than feelings” and you look in vain for displays of calculated virtuosity in a work like his Third Violin Concerto. With its mercurial shifts in mood and rhythm it nevertheless requires a great deal of flexibility and stylistic assurance from the soloist. In terms of melodic invention it yields little to Mendelssohn’s fiddle concerto, for instance, which rather prompts the question why it isn’t heard more often today. Initially a popular choice for the Proms (like Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto which has similarly fallen out of fashion), it has only been performed once between 1928 and now. Could it be that modern audiences demand more in the way of pyrotechnics and value elegance plus Gallic charm less?

From Bell’s very first entry, lacking nothing in intensity and urgency, it was clear that he was completely inside the music, revelling in the opportunities for full-throated playing that exploited the dramatic potential in the music but also relaxing sufficiently to produce extended lines of considerable sweetness and allure. Later in that first movement there is a short, dreamlike episode, tinged with French perfume, which had all the sensuousness missing earlier in the Mendelssohn. There was an authority to the accompaniment too that made me think a lot of rehearsal time must have been spent on bringing this neglected concerto to life. The slow movement with its barcarolle-like opening, underpinned by rocking rhythms from solo violin and orchestra, was a particular delight.

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