Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at the National Concert Hall, 21st of January, 2014.
Superstar violinist Joshua Bell has been Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra since 2011; he is only the second holder of the title in their fifty-five year history.
This concert was originally billed as beginning with the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, one of the most beloved works in the repertory. The replacement piece, Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin – from the d minor Partita – is probably one of the only works which could claim to top the double concerto. Horrifyingly, the Chaconne is presented here in a bizarre arrangement, by British violinist Julian Milone, for violin with string accompaniment. This arrangement perverts and undermines the original, going so far as to add arbitrary, banal countermelodies (justified by the arranger as belonging to a long history of accompanying Bach’s solo violin works with ‘extemporisation’) to what is commonly regarded as the greatest example of solo violin writing. These embellishments, and the guileless block chords which make up the majority of the orchestral part, don’t just mask the nuances of the solo violin line but often actually seem to fill out chords that explicitly contradict the implied harmonies of the more subtle original. Despite the monstrous arrangement, there are beautiful moments, mainly thanks to the sublime quality of sound possessed by both orchestra and soloist.
The performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major is revelatory. Each of the three fast movements are taken at breathtaking, almost implausible, speed. Throughout there is an extraordinary clarity and brilliance of sound. The noise the group produce is also, to put it simply, phenomenally loud. The upper strings, in particular, manage to combine the precision and sharpness of machine-gun fire with the power and weight of an elephant falling through a glass roof. It is impossible to imagine a better performance of this piece. Bell directs from the first chair and while his exaggerated movement is slightly seasick he manages to produce results of unbelievable virtuosity and musicality. It should be mentioned that, despite the boy-racer speeds, the direction and meaning of the music never threatens to disappear.
After the interval comes the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, considered by the man it was written for as one of only four great German violin concerti. This is a thrilling contrast to the frenetic Beethoven symphony. Brahms’ concerto is a lyrical, spacious work – the perfect opportunity for Bell to show off his tone. There are some heartbreaking moments as well as passages of great aggression, and Bell is equally superb in every emotional extreme. The third movement sags slightly, with Bell’s idiosyncratic rubato robbing the main theme of some of its cheekiness, and a slightly underwhelming sense of bittiness emerges. Even the third movement is never less than very good, but the first two movements are simply magical. Bell also uses his own cadenza.
The orchestra are a match for the world class soloist throughout, making the difference in the font sizes between the names of orchestra (small) and soloist (huge) on the programme for the concert seems slightly unjust. Overall, despite the terminal awfulness of the arrangement of the Chaconne, this is a magnificent concert. But seriously, avoid the Bach/Milone Chaconne at all costs.
Bach/Milone – Chaconne in d minor
Beethoven – Symphony No. 1 in C major
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major