Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Bell
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Keith Bruce
four stars
CONDUCTOR Neville Marriner’s recordings with the ensemble he founded in the year of my birth were among the first classical music albums I bought, and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has had just two directors in its history, with Marriner’s successor, American violinist Joshua Bell, now closing in on a decade in post.
The qualities that have always distinguished this chamber orchestra were still very much in evidence from the first notes of Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto. The ensemble sound of the strings rich and muscled and Bell’s Stradivarius perfectly poised on top of that. Neither soloist nor the ensemble entirely eschew vibrato, as a period band would, and, for better or worse, there was none of the raw edge that is often part of historically informed performance. The Andante slow movement of this Bach was very stately indeed.
Bell assumed the orchestra leader’s position for Mahler’s orchestration of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, and again the slow movement — based on the song that gives the work its title — was at the heart of the piece, not least because it is the most Mahlerian. Elsewhere, and particularly in the Presto finale, the arrangement is little more than a scaling up of the quartet for the larger forces. It is never very far from bleak in tone, the few sunny moments of the Scherzo always followed by a darker chord, but the range of colour and dynamics — there in the Schubert and amplified by Mahler — made for a very satisfying journey.
Just 10 string players, mostly standing, were led by Bell for Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 3, the briefest and best known of the set. This brisk ten minutes was some distance from the way Scotland’s Dunedin Consort plays this music, and to some ears might be just too slick and glossy.
No such complaints of the concluding Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla, however.
A suite with its own organic origins, rather than a response to Vivaldi, the fretboard effects it calls for from the strings echo experiments by Biber and Telemann as much as the jazz technique of Grappelli. And the lush sound this group brought to the Winter tango was exactly appropriate.