In case you’ve forgotten or perhaps you never knew, award-winning violinist Joshua Bell has been the Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since 2011. Of course, he’s still a violinist, as he directs the orchestra from the concertmaster’s chair. Sill, it’s hard to keep up with all the changes in orchestras and conductors and doubly hard to think of Bell as anything but purely a violinist. Fortunately, his recordings should dispel any notion that he’s not fully up to the job. Here, he leads two highly accomplished Beethoven performances that help prove the point, the first recording in what promises to be a complete Beethoven symphony cycle.
Bell says that great conductors have fascinated him ever since he was kid, one of his first Beethoven heroes being Carlos Kleiber. Then, for a decade or more in his later career he dreamed of conducting as well as playing with an orchestra. He especially wanted the opportunity, he says, to combine what he had learned from historically informed conductors with the “power and flexibility” of a modern orchestra. He got his chance with the ASMF.
One can argue the advantages and disadvantages of an orchestra not having a traditional conductor, but Bell seems to do all right by the situation. There is nothing particularly new or revelatory about his readings; they are simply vibrant and spirited.
Bell begins the album with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806), which sometimes gets a little lost between the composer’s more influential and popular Third and Fifth Symphonies. By comparison, the Fourth can seem somewhat lightweight and maybe even a letdown. Nevertheless, in Bell’s hands the Fourth sounds more fleet-footed and important than ever. Hector Berlioz described the Fourth as “lively, nimble, joyous, or of a heavenly sweetness.” Bell takes him up on the description.
After the fairly lengthy introductory section, Maestro Bell leads the main Allegro subject at a brisk but never breathless pace, making it appear tauter than ever yet just as cheerful. The Adagio also feels leaner than usual, although Bell maintains a moderately slow speed. The Scherzo displays much vitality and again exudes a good cheer, leading to a finale of more substance and weight than one often hears. It’s a Fourth that offers the air of friendliness the music has always enjoyed while adding a little more vigor and power to the proceedings.
Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 in 1812, a half dozen years after the Fourth. Critics often associate it with elements of the dance (“The apotheosis of the dance,” as Wagner remarked), and it possesses a sprightly charm. The ASMF, always a refined ensemble, plays with commendable precision and grace, throwing a bit more verve and vivacity into things under Bell, who leads them in a spirited interpretation. He never hurries the rhythms in the opening movement, while making them all come alive in sprightly fashion. In addition, Bell points up the contrasts smoothly, almost effortlessly, giving the music less of the stop-and-go feeling some conductors impose upon it.
The second-movement, likened to a processional in the catacombs, remains solemn and invigorating at the same time. In other words, it never drags. The third-movement Presto under Bell is as ebullient as ever (disregard the booklet timing), moving nicely into the big finish, which comes off with requisite energy.
Indeed, if I had to characterize both performances at all, I’d have to say they are, above all, energetic, without being hectic or raucous. As for the qualities of the dance in the Seventh, well, maybe Bell doesn’t exactly define them as well as did the likes of Colin Davis (EMI) or even Karl Bohm (DG), who seem more balletic. Bell’s rendering seems more athletic, more like modern dance, with a bit more flinging around. In any case, it’s all great fun.
Bell and the Academy recorded the album at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London, in May of 2012. The sound is maybe not in the audiophile class, but it is lifelike enough. We hear in it good orchestral depth, good tonal balance, a warm studio ambience, and a wide dynamic range, with plenty of impact. Although the upper bass gets a tad heavy at times, it contributes to the music’s weight. Midrange clarity is not quite as transparent as I’ve heard, yet it is fairly natural and no doubt sounds the way it might sound live a short distance from the orchestra.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: