Festival Music

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Usher Hall

Martin Kershaw

three stars

WATCHING this concert rather put me in mind of the Reginald Perrin episode where he goes out to lunch and repeatedly orders ravioli. “I came here for a balanced three course meal: ravioli, ravioli, ravioli” he insists to the protesting waiter. Reggie is losing the plot – no-one in their right mind would order three courses of the same thing, but this is basically what the Academy of St Martin in the Fields served up to the Usher Hall audience on Thursday night.

First course – Mendelssohn’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream: pleasant, solid Late Classical/Early Romantic fare with plenty of familiar melodies. Second course – Bruch Scottish Fantasy, admittedly written 40 years or so later, but other than that, see above. Third course – Beethoven Pastoral Symphony: see above.

All were played perfectly well, but it was too much of the same thing. I came to dread the inevitability of those manicured cadences, the obsessively repeated phrases, the sheer relentless consonance of it all. Even the Pastoral Symphony’s storm section seemed tame and cliched – its swirling diminished sevenths barely making a puddle.

It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of director Joshua Bell, lurching and swaying about on his leader’s piano stool, but there simply wasn’t enough variety in the material to create the required impact. And whilst his playing in the Bruch was virtuosic and fluent as ever, the piece itself is little more than a reasonable orchestration of some Scottish tunes – distinctly average. It’s a shame, because Bell is a truly great violinist and the Academy is a world-class ensemble, but both were let down here by criminally unimaginative programming.