Review: Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell

First published in The Herald on 22 January, 2014

Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Bell
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It was as soloist that Joshua Bell opened this concert and as soloist that he closed it. The American violinist is music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields – a position that rolls conducting, leading and concerto-playing into one – and despite the orchestra’s virtuosic flair there was never any question of who was centre stage. Whether that’s a negative depends on the extent of your appetite for Bell’s sound, style and musical ideas.

He opened with the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor Partita in an arrangement for violin and orchestra by Julian Milone (via Mendelssohn). It was the Romantic era of transcription rather than the baroque original that informed this performance: Bell’s playing was huge, visceral and polished and the orchestra supported him with plush cushioning. Even in the Usher Hall, which usually swallows up anything less than a full symphony orchestra, their hearty sound and big-boned gestures came across with real punch.

Beethoven’s First Symphony was a riot of heavy accents and brisk, bolshy tuttis. The conductorless set-up led to a few dicey moments (the opening chords, for starters) and I missed a lightness of touch in the Andante; the beefy attack might have suited later Beethoven better than it did this youthful work. But the minuet had a fun rustic stomp and the finale was a thrill – dazzling string playing that reminded us how technically formidable this orchestra can be. In Brahms’s Violin Concerto the ensemble sound turned broader, darker and more exploratory; it’s hard to imagine the Adagio’s oboe solo more beautifully delivered. Bell’s solo line was occasionally strained, even plain sharp, but his stormy drama and self-penned cadenza were as absorbing as ever.