When the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF) last visited Boston, in April 2012, my BMInt review headline read “It’s all about the ensemble.” Proof that artistic lightning can strike more than once in the same place was shown Sunday afternoon when the esteemed ensemble, under the direction of virtuoso violinist and music director Joshua Bell, visited Symphony Hall with a program of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Schumann/Britten, and Beethoven. Once again the appearance occasioned a triumph.
Philosophically, can it really be “all about the ensemble?” Perhaps not quite all, but when the ensemble is this one, group playing is unsurpassed in context with any other chamber orchestra. By which I mean an otherworldly togetherness, not just superb pitch matching but timbre matching. Not just unanimity of attack but of musical intent. Not just single-minded focus on individual detail but the overall contribution that each instrumentalist offers the organization at a particular moment. In this Celebrity Series concert, pure magic was afoot and entirely audible throughout the afternoon.
Could this touring version of ASMF—nine first violins, six seconds, four violas, four cellos, two double-basses, eight woodwinds, six brass, plus timpani—adequately flesh out Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8? The answer is: brilliantly and then some. I had wondered whether I would miss the heft of performances of these works played by full orchestras. Not for a second.
Bell emerged from the wings with much bow waving from his string sections and applause from his winds. It’s immediately apparent that these musicians are fond of their director, and once the playing began, it was easy to see why.
Prokofiev’s charming and elegant Classical Symphony is no trifle, though it’s often played that way. Not this time. Bell wisely chose a relaxed tempo for the first two movements. When it is played too fast, the challenging and often hidden technical demands of this music are glossed over and unclear. AMSF played each and every note cleanly, clearly, and with a charm and panache that left me smiling in admiration. Never did the playing seem clinical and calculated; elegance pervaded. Another perfect tempo was adopted for the third movement Gavotte. Did I write “panache” earlier? This movement radiated it. I was reminded of a Sergiu Celibidache rehearsal in which he showed his players how the music was all about the interplay between a flirtatious dancing couple, with the last two notes illustrating a light kiss to each cheek of the lady. Agree or not, ASMF danced and played with equal aplomb and sensitivity. The finale launched with Koussevitzky’s November 25 1947 recording’s blistering Allegro Vivacissimo tempo, a wonder to hear then and since for accuracy and astounding virtuosity. Yet ASMF was all of that, and if anything their clarity was even more transparent in this treacherously difficult exhilarating music. One might hear different performances of this symphony, but not better.
Bell returned, this time as soloist and conductor, in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Could he play and conduct with like authority? Yes.
It is hard to imagine a more beautifully rendered and integrated interpretation. About midway through the first movement, I stopped writing notes to allow total absorption of what was happening onstage. The performance became that rarest of moments: noble and totally committed music-making, flawless execution, and of such beauty of tone that one’s imagination was overwhelmed. It was the finest live performance of the concerto I have heard. Perfect tempi, total unanimity of purpose from all, and the most gorgeous playing from Bell, facilitated by his dulcet-toned 1713 Huberman Stradivarius, which sang every phrase with ethereal purity. Again one was impressed by the ensemble as Bell both led and soloed. Not only did he dispatch his solos flawlessly, the concurrent orchestral rubato was everywhere essayed with perfection.
Pamela Frank was planned to join Bell in a performance of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, but she sustained a minor injury. Instead, the audience heard an affecting performance of Elegy , music from the second movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto as arranged by Britten. In September of 1957 Britten’s friend and frequent collaborator the British French horn virtuoso Dennis Brain was killed in a car crash. As a memorial, Britten, a lifelong Schumann admirer, took the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, adapted it for performance, and added seven bars of codetta. Schumann’s original moves without pause to the polonaise finale. Bell’s sweet-toned and affectionate performance of this, along with complementary solos sensitively played by lead cellist Stephen Orton, made for precious moments of contemplation.
The concert concluded with a fleet, taut, rhythmically charged and enlivening Beethoven Eighth, the composer’s wildest and most unconventional symphony. One musical surprise follows another. Read how Steven Ledbetter points out that the first movement alone “… is full of events. The opening phrases form a complete melody … but immediately after the cadence the next phrases open out and grow in the most astonishing way. False leads cheerfully undermine the tonal solidity that Beethoven had been at such pains to establish in the opening bars, seeming to settle into the highly unorthodox key of D major (instead of the dominant, C) for the secondary theme. But scarcely has the theme started before it falters, suddenly aware of its faux pas, and swings around to the expected dominant.” These lightning-quick unexpected course changes continue throughout the ensuing three movements. The second movement, amusing and tic-toc in fits and starts, makes an homage to the metronome, invented by the composer’s friend Mälzel. The third movement is an unbalanced minuet; a trio features French horns in elegant duet even while accompanied by a restless group of muttering low strings. The bustling finale is ever bothered by strife between C major and C-sharp major, but at its end tries to resolve all conflict with 15 (!) hammered-home quarter-note chords. What an almost crazy piece, yet how exhilarating.
Here again from Bell and ASMF came perfect tempi, powerful sforzandos, complete commitment from each player. (Did I mention how they all stay in touch with one another? Watching, cuing, smiling, with endless listening.)
The thrilling performance brought the audience to their feet immediately. ASMF remains at the loftiest summit of its game, Bell continuing to grow as an important virtuoso. We all left symphony Hall exhilarated, moved, amazed.