Well, not quite all, but when the ensemble is the world-famed Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields (ASMF), ensemble playing is remarkable and unparalleled when heard in context with other chamber-sized orchestras. By ensemble playing I mean an otherworldly togetherness, not just superb pitch matching but actual matching of timbres. Not just unanimity of attack, but of musical intent. Not just single-minded focus on individual detail, but the overall contribution each instrumentalist offers the organization at a particular time. In Sunday afternoon’s Boston Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall, pure magic was afoot and audible throughout the entire all-Beethoven program. “Beethoven?” you might rightly ask. How might the playing of a chamber orchestra be up to the task of such weighty material as the thorny “Coriolan” Overture, op. 62, and the impetuous Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92?
The answer is: brilliantly. Noting with some concern the Academy’s tour roster in the program book of eight first violins, six seconds, four violas, four ‘cellos and a mere two double-basses, I had wondered whether I would miss the heft, the weight of musical sound that I had heard before in these works when played by full symphony orchestras. Not for a second.
Coriolan begins with a growl and a bark — the growl a fortissimo-marked unison C played by all the strings, the bark (a shout, actually) — a sharply punctuated and staccato-marked fortissimo F/C/A-flat chord played by all of the instruments together. And this pattern is repeated twice more, with ever-more intense chords following each introductory unison C. Not once did I miss the full-orchestra sound I had feared I might, so deep, dark, pointed, and strongly-played was the intensity of these instrumentalists.
The performance went from strength to strength, beginning with an absolutely ideal tempo maintained with rock-like solidity, only on occasion yielding a bit to accommodate a touch of telling rubato. The overall severity of this uncompromising overture was always in focus, even when the mood rarely relented to something softer than the agitation so pervasive in this music. Beautifully sculpted playing from the woodwinds contrasted with incisive interruptions from trumpets and tympani, the latter played with extrovert panache throughout the program by Adrian Bending. At the Overture’s finish — a difficult-to-keep-together set of three short unison C pizzicatti from the strings, here magically shaded pp-ppp-pppp— there was a collective exhalation of breath from the attentive audience before it erupted in very strong applause.
All of this is even more remarkable, because at the helm of the ensemble, playing and leading from a pianist’s adjustable upholstered single bench was Joshua Bell, the newly-appointed music director of ASMF.
Bell led with assurance leavened with helpful collaborative cues, and the players of ASMF were of one mind with him all the way. They seemed genuinely pleased to be making music with him. And this was the case throughout this remarkable concert, one of the finest I’ve heard in Symphony Hall.
The mighty Coriolan was followed by a sweet-toned, perfectly paced and elegantly played performance of the Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 61. Its opus number is but one digit removed from the aforedescribed Overture, yet the Concerto is a world-apart composition. It is so different that one is tempted to suggest it might have been written by another composer, but this is an example of why Beethoven is so highly esteemed among all music lovers. He literally and effortlessly runs the gamut of emotion and depth of feeling.
It is hard to imagine a more beautifully played and integrated interpretation of this superb concerto than this heard from Bell and his colleagues. About midway through the first movement, I stopped writing notes to allow a total absorption of what was happening on stage. This performance became that rarest of moments —uplifting, noble, and totally committed music-making, utterly flawless execution, and of such overwhelming beauty of tone that one’s imagination is stunned. This was simply the finest performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto I have ever heard. Perfect tempi, total unanimity of purpose from all the players, and the most gorgeous playing from Joshua Bell I’ve heard from him, abetted by his dulcet-toned 1713 Huberman Stradivarius, which sang every phrase with otherworldly purity. Again one was impressed by the ensemble playing as Bell both led and soloed. The middle of the second movement has the solo line accompanied by pizzicati that even in “traditional” orchestra/conductor/soloist performances can be treacherous to make precise. No problem here – not only was Bell able to play his solo flawlessly, the concurrent pizzicati were perfectly essayed, even with a lacing of elegant rubato.
Aside from his elegant playing, attention must be paid to Bell’s interpretive powers. It would be one thing, surely, to play with such beauty as he does. It is an entirely another thing to not only lead with conviction while playing but also to bring a powerful, appropriate, and thoroughly convincing interpretation to the music. This Bell did in all three of these diverse Beethoven performances. In general I have been a bit suspicious when talented instrumentalists decide that they “should” also be a conductor. After hearing Bell’s thoughtful and authoritative approach to this entire program, I have to admit that he definitely has the depth of talent to lead as well as play. Not once did I have any doubts that what I heard coming from the stage was anything but top-drawer.
The concert concluded with a fleet, taut, rhythmically-charged and inspired performance of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. I had worried yet again before the powerful chord which begins this remarkable symphony — would I miss the full orchestra approach, would a mere two double-basses provide enough chromatic growl to the ends of the first and fourth movements? My worries were unwarranted. Here was a performance that sang, danced, soared, and spun. Here were perfect tempi yet again, powerful sforzandi and total commitment from each player. (Have I mentioned how these players constantly stay in touch with one another? They watch each other all the time, take cues, smile frequently, and listen listen listen!)
While these admirable traits paid big dividends throughout, the Symphony’s second movement was especially moving. Bell set the correct alle-breve tempo and the ensuing dialogues between strings, winds, and tympani sounded wonderfully fresh and new. The wisely integrated tempi in the third movement allowed its famous horn and flute-inflected trio section to move forward rapidly as it should.
Bell and his colleagues blessedly elected to play virtually all the repeats Beethoven indicated he wanted heard in each movement—a welcome change from the routine shortening this work often suffers.
In the Symphony’s fourth movement listeners were literally swept into the mad, swirling, possessed Allegro con Brio dance that is right there on the score’s pages but so rarely encountered in performance with such all-encompassing energy. All of Beethoven’s many dynamic marks were scrupulously observed, and at the one moment in the entire symphony where he asks for fff, the impact and shock of that indication was positively electric. Though the heroic timpanist seemed a bit over the top with his powerful thwacks at the very end, one forgave him for being so totally “in the moment.” This was an utterly thrilling performance which brought the audience immediately to its feet in a (for-once) deserved and cheering standing ovation.
So, much was revealed in Symphony Hall Sunday afternoon: a new conductor of significant talent has arisen, the ASMF remains at the top of their game, Joshua Bell continues to grow as a significant and important violin virtuoso, and Beethoven reigns supreme in the composers’ pantheon, fully deserving of his name’s pride-of-place gold-bedecked emblazonment above the Symphony Hall stage. One left the hall exhilarated, moved, and amazed. THIS is what a live concert should be all about.