Symphonies: No. 4; No. 7
Joshua Bell, cond; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
SONY 88725 49176 (72:15)
Reviewing this CD is a simple delight. Joshua Bell has recently been appointed music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the first to hold the full title since the orchestra’s founding by Neville Marriner. It has been worth the wait. Leading from the concertmaster’s chair, Bell exhibits remarkable ability to convey to the orchestra his own energetic and supple brand of phrasing. The string sections are completely with him. As a soloist, he has always combined a powerful ability to attack the notes with an instinct to cushion the attack on shock absorbers. In concert you see it in the way he bends forward on downbeats, almost bouncing on springs. The result is always a beautiful long line, even at the most driven moments.
Bell’s personal CD notes revolve around an admiration for Carlos Kleiber’s way with the Fourth Symphony, in particular, and the result shows. The performance here is burstingly alive and joyous, but also somehow mystically quiet where it counts. The way the first movement recapitulation sneaks up on you with little cat feet is quite beautiful. We are working here with an orchestra of 40, but much as I wish the forces were doubled (my usual prejudice), I’m forced to admit that the balance of clarity and suppleness Bell achieves is just about ideal. If Beethoven is to be played at this scale, then this is how to do it! He has in particular an ability to delight you with unexpected bursts of energy from nearly every syncopated moment—greatly assisted by a wonderful timpanist. Yet for all the energy, these are open performances, with full dream-space for creamy woodwind solos. Karajan and Kleiber are in there somewhere! Bell’s concertmaster’s contribution to the slow movement of the Fourth adds a personal touch, as well, without being in any way distracting.
The Seventh Symphony benefits from the same approach. Small orchestras often begin the Seventh with a scrawny swipe. Bell manages instead a fine powerful diphthong. Once the music gets going, the whooping horns and timpani sweep you along superbly. Elsewhere, especially in the finale, the inner voice articulation is precise and revealing. And overall there is a remarkable energy, all the more convincing because it doesn’t seem forced, as it sometimes does with Norrington and Gardiner. Bell seeks “the middle way” for a small group and fully succeeds. I can think of no significant criticism. The recording itself, captured at London’s Air Studios, is everything one would wish.
I am happy to report that this is just the beginning of a Beethoven cycle from this collaboration. By all signs, the Academy is entering a golden era. Neville Marriner’s contributions to the CD record bins have been astonishing over the years. Few conductors have turned out as many reliably good ones. But Joshua Bell may bring just that extra touch of originality. There is nothing generic about his music-making. At a still youthful point of his career, one realizes that this is a serious musician who is going to become, if he has not already, an important figure not just in performing music, but in steering the nation’s musical life. Bravo to that!