Charismatic Performances: Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Joshua Bell

Nélida Nassar 02.29.2020

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields’s long-awaited concert last Sunday was planned to perfection by Celebrity Series of Boston. The London-based chamber orchestra – established in 1958 by Neville Marriner, a violinist who became the group’s Music Director and conductor — was in great form. Marriner was eventually succeeded by the American violinist Joshua Bell, and this was the first chance to hear him with the ensemble in Boston. Of course, Bell is a favorite soloist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has appeared in concert with them for thirty consecutive years. He was warmly welcomed by his fans on this sunny, unseasonably warm spring-like day in February. 

The well constructed program consisted of W. A. Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro K. 492; Nicolò Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 1 in D major, Opus 6, and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No 4 in E minor, opus 98. 

From the very first notes of the Figaro Overture, the brightly resonant acoustic of Symphony Hall was the perfect match for the Academy’s distinctive sound, vibrant yet disciplined. Bell’s performance as soloist in the Paganini Violin Concerto was the highpoint of the whole program. The piece draws inspiration from the musical language of Gioachino Rossini’s operas, which were extremely popular at the time of its composition. Bell’s flashy and difficult-to-execute techniques, such as extended arpeggios, left-hand pizzicati, and rapid runs in thirds, fifths, and even harmonics, yielded exquisite results. Treating the work as more than a mere virtuoso showpiece, Bell conveyed the elegant melodic themes with striking beauty. His tour de force performance revealed not only his incredible technical ability, but also his melodic sensitivity and skillful exploitation of dramatic structure. 

Bell plays the Huberman Stradivarius, notable for its bright, gleaming top, especially in harmonics, and a more earthy sound in the lower register. He dispatched the solo parts with a delightfully light touch, adding his own dazzling though not anachronistic cadenzas. He and the orchestra emphasized the contrasting episodes in the cheery finale rather than aiming at integration, a happy surprise resulting in some delightful changes of tempi. Bell stamped his personality on the music, in part by revealing some beguiling intricacies in its texture. His technical assurance, spell-binding though it was, had a soulful, penetrating sweetness, thanks to his concentration on the musicality of the piece as much as on its virtuosity.

For the second half of the concert the visitors chose Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, a cornerstone of the late Romantic repertoire. The orchestra performed on original instruments, and so we were not surprised to hear choices often made by participants of the early music movement: quite brisk tempos, a string tone with minimal vibrato, a characteristic timbral sheen, and a lean and transparent ensemble sound – all features that were apparent in the first movement. Bell and the orchestra favored a burnished tone and rich textures. Yet, they also were somewhat busy-sounding, as if the musicians were in a hurry to zip through the work. As a result, some of Brahms’s brilliant interplay of rhythms and glowing sonorities were sacrificed in an account which seemed a little brusque for this famous autumnal work. 

Overall, this was an invigorating and successful concert. Joshua Bell and the musicians of Academy of St Martin in the Fields clearly enjoy performing with each other and are committed to making music at the highest level. The concert hall long resonated with the audience’s cheers. Contented smiles lit up each attendee’s face. Spring was hovering in the air.