Beethoven and Prokofiev fare best with Bell and the Academy

March 21, 2016 at 6:19 pm

By David Wright

Joshua Bell performed Sunday at Symphony Hall with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Joshua Bell performed Sunday at Symphony Hall with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the pioneering British chamber orchestra now led by the American violinist Joshua Bell, came to Symphony Hall Sunday afternoon, doing what it does best—and also something it apparently doesn’t do very well.

Famed for its fresh performances of music from the late eighteenth century, the orchestra bookended its program with a Classical symphony and a “Classical” symphony, to excellent effect.

The concert, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, opened with Prokofiev’s Haydn-inspired Symphony No. 1 in D major, “Classical,” and closed with Beethoven’s idyllic, humorous—perhaps also inspired by Haydn, though the composer would surely deny it—Symphony No. 8 in F major.

Following a tradition that originated with the orchestra’s founder, Sir Neville Marriner, in 1958, Bell led both symphonies from a slightly elevated seat in the concertmaster position, playing along with the first violins.  (The practice of course goes back much further than that, and was standard before conductors became ubiquitous in the nineteenth century.)

Bell also led Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto while playing the taxing solo part himself, with far less satisfactory results.  A brief Elegy by Schumann, arranged by Benjamin Britten for solo violin and strings, provided a contemplative interlude.

Things started up gradually, as Bell took Prokofiev’s opening Allegro con brio at a rather deliberate tempo, perhaps in order to highlight the inner workings of the woodwinds.  The Larghetto, on the other hand, was a lot more “etto” than Largo, but didn’t sound rushed, and there was still plenty of swell in the long melodic line. 

The droll Gavotte, with its persistent, lurching rubato, suffered no ensemble problems, as the players synchronized smoothly with their leader’s bobbing head.  The exhilarating finale, on the other hand, raced to its finish with an irresistible momentum that had the audience out of its seats at the end.

The orchestral sound was transparent and nicely balanced throughout the symphony.  One detected a slight tendency for the conductorless orchestra to “check in” with the downbeat, robbing the music of just a bit of airiness and lift. 

This small problem in the Prokofiev swelled to a large one in Tchaikovsky’s concerto, where Bell took the roles of soloist and conductor, and did an indifferent job of each.

All solo concertos have a competitive, can-you-top-this aspect to them, and this piece supremely so, as Tchaikovsky the dramatist makes the orchestra roar at the violinist and the violinist roar right back.  When the orchestra has to play follow-the-leader with the soloist, this dynamic changes completely. 

On Sunday, one couldn’t escape the feeling that the orchestra was playing the role of accompanist rather than antagonist, and there was nobody to drive the violinist to new heights of expression or virtuosity.

The result was a rather colorless performance, however impeccably executed.  Bell played with a clear, healthy tone that was a pleasure to hear, until one realized he wasn’t varying it at all, just dialing it up and down from piano to forte and back.  At many points in the music, one found oneself wishing for something a little lighter, or harder, or rougher, or sweeter—anything but that dead-center tone.

Perhaps the violinist was listening to the orchestra with one ear and to himself with the other, and he needed both ears to do justice to his own part. 

Things went no better in the occasional orchestral tutti without soloist, when Bell turned toward the orchestra and waved his bow somewhat awkwardly as the players felt around in search of a Tchaikovsky crescendo.

Both of the famous Tchaikovsky concertos have big finishes to their first movements, and it has become usual for audiences to applaud at that point. On Sunday, Bell and the orchestra generated quite a head of steam in the first movement’s coda, causing not only applause at the end but a standing ovation that delayed the proceedings for a good minute and a half. 

The Canzonetta movement suffered somewhat from monotonous tone in the solo part and imbalances (a too-loud horn, murky woodwinds) in the orchestra.  Bell’s bow and fingers blazed flawlessly through the vivacissimo staccato passages in the finale, prompting the audience to stand and cheer again.

The work planned for after intermission had been Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, but soloist Pamela Frank had to withdraw because of injury, and Schumann’s Elegy was performed instead. 

The music was actually the slow movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, provided with a new ending and a strings-only arrangement by Britten in 1958 as a memorial piece for the great horn player Dennis Brain.  After that, the arrangement was largely forgotten until Bell and the Academy recently took it up.

Duetting with the orchestra’s principal cellist, Stephen Orton, Bell evoked an introspective, rather melancholy mood typical of Schumann’s later compositions.

Back in the leader’s chair, Bell guided a fast, crisp performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eighth.  The rhythmic orientation was a little heavy on the downbeat—that “check-in” factor again—but at least it made for good coordination, especially for the strings.  

The winds had their moment in the Allegretto scherzando, neatly executing their strutting staccato chords.  Speaking exactly together on the sudden pauses and spurts of the “hesitation” coda would be quite a feat for an orchestra with a conductor; this band carried it off without one.

The Tempo di minuetto offered satisfying contrast between the rather heavy-footed minuet and the trio floating amid a glow of four horns.  The finale was a virtual stand-up routine of musical jokes, alertly delivered.  Timpanist Adrian Bending picked up the hard mallets, putting a firecracker under every punch line and a veritable concussion bomb on the last chord.

It served to emphasize that this was not your father’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the mainstay of “relaxing” classical radio.  Under its current leader, this rock star of chamber orchestras appears determined to sound like one.

The next classical-music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be pianist Jeremy Denk, 8 p.m. April 2 at NEC’s Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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