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October 17, 2012 5:04 pm
Period-instrument orchestras usually play 19th-century music with a conductor, even though much of the music was written before conductors existed. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields uses modern instruments for pre-Romantic music, but mostly plays without a conductor. Which is more “authentic”? Judging by its concert on Tuesday, directed from the first violin’s chair by Joshua Bell, the Academy is nowhere in the running. It is still trying to find an artistic raison d’être in a world that has moved on from the 1960s/1970s era when it established its smooth style and made its name as a recording band.
At first glance the tie-up with Bell makes sense. The Academy, at sea since its ageing founder, Sir Neville Marriner, took a back seat, gets a star box-office catch for its lucrative international tours. The American violin virtuoso gets to expand his horizons by “directing” – shorthand for instrumental soloists who fancy a try at conducting. Gesticulating with violin bow from his seat at the front, Bell led a polished but predictable run-through of Beethoven’s First Symphony, making it so unobjectionable as to sound anodyne. But that was far preferable to the bruising dealt out to Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony after the interval. This was a nightmare performance of rudimentary balance, stolid rhythm, coarsely drummed-out accents and, worst of all, unbearable loudness. If Bell is to “direct” while playing his violin, he needs to know what the rest of the orchestra is doing.
From a standing position, though, he is in his element. The filling in the middle of this symphonic sandwich was Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, and you could scarcely credit the transformation. The orchestra looked and sounded motivated, and Bell entranced us with the sound of his Huberman Stradivarius. He conversed effectively with obbligato flute and harp, captured the vitality and uncomplicated character of the music, and communicated a sense of enjoyment. But that is what he has always done as a soloist. There may be commercial logic in this marriage of interests with the Academy, but artistically the partnership still has everything to prove.
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