Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Cadogan Hall, review

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
The Telegraph

The Academy of St martin in the Fields and Joshua Bell is proving a winning combination, says Ivan Hewett.

By Ivan Hewett

Decades after its recording heyday, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is still a name to conjure with. Bringing it together with that of Joshua Bell, who’s only the second music director in the Academy’s history, is proving a winning combination. It’s not just that it pulls in the crowds (Cadogan Hall was completely packed for this concert) but there’s also a palpable sense of shared aims.

Like the players, Bell has grown up in the era of “period-instrument” bands. He’s learned from the way they bring light and air into the sound of classical-era music. But when the chips are down he prefers the heft and colour of modern instruments. Which is what the ASMF gives him, and what we heard loud and clear in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which opened the programme. It was brutal and swift, each string chord swiftly cut off. As with the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bell led the performance from the leader’s chair. That was in keeping with the Academy’s tradition as a conductor-less orchestra, and it echoed the practice of Beethoven’s time, too, when the idea of the conductor on the podium was only just emerging.

Not having the safety net of a conductor certainly brought an edge of excitement to the proceedings. It put the players on the edge of their seat, and us, too. It didn’t always work: it was only at the repeat that the famous Fate motif at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony really came together. As with Spira Mirabilis, the other conductor-less orchestra now making waves, it took time for things to settle. Once that was achieved, the performance glowed, particularly in the slow movement.

In between the two Beethoven works came Brahms’s Violin Concerto. A riskier proposition for a conductor-less orchestra, you might think, but in fact it worked wonderfully well, partly because the co-leader, Andrew Haveron, stepped into Bell’s role so well. All the player’s eyes were on him, freeing Bell up for the solo part, which he seized with a fierce, focused passion. He played his own cadenza too, which had an interesting gipsy flavour and was a welcome change to the standard one.

The outer movements thrilled, and the middle one had a seasoned warmth, Bell’s high ornamentation drifting down lovingly over Christopher Cowie’s plangent oboe line. It was more evidence that this partnership is ripening into something really remarkable.