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

Michael Tumelty

Five Stars

TOPPING out a superb opening concert week to the new year, The Usher Hall, in its own first orchestral promotion of 2016 on Sunday afternoon, hosted a staggering concert with violinist/director Joshua Bell in complete command of his superlative Academy of St Martin in the Fields. What a band, and what a revelatory performance the musicians, with Bell leading from the front, produced of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. Following this firecracker Eighth, driven by those wee kettle drums played with hard wooden sticks, and the sheer energetic dynamism of Bell and his troops, there is a good case for reconsidering that Eighth: Beethoven in lighter mode? Oh yeah? This one had some steel in its boots and packed more than one punch.

The symphony apart, the concert was wall-to-wall Steven Isserlis and Joshua Bell, both in fantastic form, with Isserlis opening the proceedings with Dvorak’s little melter, Silent Woods while, after the Beethoven, Joshua Bell (with Isserlis also on stage), played the slow movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in a version completed by Benjamin Britten (and discovered in the Britten archives by Isserlis). The movement has the most heart-breaking melody I’ve ever heard, and the playing by Bell (and Isserlis) will haunt me for days. It was the epitome of beauty in sound.

Finally, with the ASMF in glorious accompaniment, Bell and Isserlis delivered a magnetic account of Brahms’ Double Concerto, in fact the only one I’ve heard that has convinced me about the integrity of the piece. How? Yes, it was symphonic, but it was anti-rhetorical; it was conversational and intimate, even in the final dance. That’s all it took