Age, they say, is not a number, but a state of mind. If that be true, then the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and its artistic director, Joshua Bell have discovered the fountain of musical youth. Believe it or not, Bell is in his 50th year, but looks and acts like a man two decades younger. Celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its founding next year, the Academy plays with a passion and a freshness you might expect from a group without such a long and illustrious pedigree.
Of course, youthful vigour is not the only artistic commodity Bell and the Academy have brought with them on this, their first national tour of Australia. The opening concert of the tour in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall last night revealed that this artistic marriage with its considerable enthusiasm and experience could well have been made in heaven. Through the utterly indefatigable energy and commitment that Bell gives to his direction and the players’ extraordinarily keen response, there shines a genuine musical camaraderie that results in music making of the very highest order.
To showcase their combined strengths, Bell and the Academy are presenting two programmes. The first (presented last night and reviewed here) features Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Schumann, while the other presents Mozart’s Symphony No 25, Violin Concerto No 4 and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. (In Brisbane, Bell will play the Bruch concerto instead of the Tchaikovsky.)
Choosing two works by Mendelssohn to frame the programme allowed the Academy to revel in the composer’s idiomatic string writing while allowing its beautifully blended wind and brass sections to add colour and drama to these archetypal Romantic scores. From the very outset every phrase of The Hebrides Overture was carefully shaped. The resultant wave-like effect gave the climaxes an appropriate but not overdone surging quality, enhanced by having nearly forty players on stage. The size of the ensemble may have pushed the hall towards its acoustic limits, but the tuttis were never anything less than perfectly clear. How refreshing to hear this often hackneyed work given a new lease of life and a sense of wonder by empathetic performers.
The “Italian” Symphony provided not only an ebullient close to proceedings, but an opportunity for the players to settle into a work they obviously both know and love. Again the Academy’s lustrous string tone, warm but clear, came to the fore; whether in the boisterous outer movements or in the flowing inner sections of the work. The contrasting wind sections in the third movement displayed enviable articulation and the rousing, final Saltarello conveyed an apt sense of joyous abandon.
At the centre of the programme was Bell’s white-hot account of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. There was no mistaking the soloist’s ardour throughout this challenging masterpiece. Harnessing the distinctive tonal qualities of his 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius, Bell gave a blistering interpretation of the first movement in which he would admit no lessening of the score’s increasing dramatic tension or romantic fervour. The Stradivarius’s dark but well projected bottom octave combined with its crystalline upper range enhanced the pyrotechnics of the cadenza, and it is little wonder that spontaneous applause broke out at the end of the first movement.
Tension was not released in the central Canzonetta, where Bell maintained a sense of great earnestness and tonal control. The various alternations between the wind and the strings were elegantly handled. Once the hurly burly of the finale was underway, Bell allowed himself to enjoy some of the first entry’s teasing humour and the rustic nature of the movement’s slower episodes, before powering on to a brilliant finish.
After interval we were treated to Britten’s arrangement of the slow movement from Schumann’s Violin Concerto. Arranged for strings only and with a codetta to make the movement self-contained, Britten made this version for a memorial service, after which it was forgotten until cellist, Steven Isserlis brought it to Bell’s attention. The blending of the prominent cello solo, sensitively played by Stephen Orton, with the solo violin made for a poignant partnership, in which the finest details (such as vibrato) were carefully calibrated.
After the enthusiastic reception of the Mendelssohn symphony, Tchaikovsky had the final word, as the Waltz from his Serenade for Strings was given as an encore. Having well and truly won over the capacity audience, Bell and the players were totally relaxed and the famous string tone bloomed all the more, leaving me to marvel at the endless potential of these fine players.