The law of diminishing returns may suggest otherwise, but the act of hearing a live performance of a piece of music that’s become utterly ubiquitous in our culture, produces a genuinely uncanny sensation. At least, it does when the rendition of the piece is at once entirely familiar yet stunningly fresh, as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was in the hands of Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Joshua Bell © Bill Phelps
Joshua Bell
© Bill Phelps

It may seem infeasible that a work nearly 300 years old can still have new light shed upon it, but there were two key respects in which what we heard in Symphony Hall expanded on one’s countless previous encounters. First was its abstract qualities: yes, it can be fun listening out for representations of storms or buzzing flies and barking dogs, but the emphasis in this performance was more generalised. The effect was to make the music yet more allusive. Rather than dealing in imitative specifics, we gleaned something deeper about both the nature of the seasons and – just as, if not more, significant – our interactive relationship with them. The two major-key sections, Spring and Autumn, toyed with elasticity of tempo, Bell making his solo passages speak as ecstatic reveries, the music switching in and out of metric regularity around them. Thus, the allusions to birdsong (impossible to miss, even within a more abstract frame of mind) almost literally flew off the stage in a display of playful abandon, in the process foreshadowing later depictions by the likes of Beethoven and Messiaen.

In the minor-key seasons, Summer and Winter, they opted instead to pull hard at the music’s dynamic potential, producing unexpectedly vertiginous swells and plummets almost to the point of inaudibility. Taken together, this cavorting over the contours of Vivaldi’s musical landscape illuminated something else that is perhaps too often overlooked. We tend to think of these four concerti as time-locked: self-contained, hermetically-sealed representations of their particular season akin to a quartet of glass paperweights (or, in Winter’s case, a snowglobe). Yet what Bell and the Academy together clarified through their machinations with the music was the sense of an entire year progressing. In England of all places, the seasons are fickle, unpredictable things, and the deliberate overlaps in Vivaldi’s writing – parts of Spring anticipating (a somewhat damp) Summer, Autumn hinting at Winter ice that will soon arrive – has rarely sounded so vivid and convincing. It was an astounding performance. It’s ironic that a work so closely associated with the passage of time should, after three centuries, still sound so timeless.

After ten minutes in the company of a more recent work by US bassist and composer Edgar Meyer – a charmless and, frankly, pointless neo-/post-/quasi-/pseudo-Romantic frippery, like Walton but all froth and no effervescence – Joshua Bell assumed a new role for the Beethoven, as leader of the orchestra. This in itself was striking enough (personally, I’d never seen any of Beethoven’s symphonies performed in this way) but the effect turned out to be transformative. Rather than comprising separate instrumental groups being marshalled from the front, the entire orchestra came to resemble a vast chamber group, unified by Bell such that they were all players on the same team. In keeping with this transformation, they all had a tendency to play more soloistically, not in the sense that overall balance and cohesion was disturbed, but with the gusto and flourish of someone consciously in the spotlight.

This could not have worked more triumphantly in Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major. A liminal work, teetering (post-Vivaldi) on the edge of two very different seasons – Classical and Romantic – it was ideally suited to such a fiery, almost brash performance as this. Each and every accent (and there are many) had the impact of a nailgun, and the music’s regular plunges into minor territory became spine-tingling shadowy, as if Symphony Hall had had a dark veil drawn over it. Their impetuosity perhaps got the better of them in the third movement, so fast that certain details (particularly the rapid woodwind runs) were lost, but it was entirely forgiveable, particularly in the dramatic liberties Bell took in the timing of the trio, gently over-egging cadences to amusing but compelling effect. Ultimately, Beethoven certainly knew how to romp and the ASMF, taking their exuberance to new heights, practically fell over themselves in his finale, relishing its wildly unpredictable structure and projecting its buzzing closing outbursts like rudely-blown raspberries.

It was a fittingly cheeky, capricous end to an illuminating concert that demonstrably proved why some music really is ‘great’, surviving down the centuries while never seeming to age a day.

*****