Monday, 14 June 2010

SINGAPORE ARTS FESTIVAL: Joshua Bell and Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Singapore Arts Festival

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

JOSHUA BELL, Violin & Director

Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday (12 June 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 June 2010.

The programme offered by the celebrated Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival was safe, predictable and ultimately boring. Fortunately, the playing by the much-recorded orchestra and its director-on-tour, the American violinist Joshua Bell, was none of the above.

In the opening Coriolan Overture by Beethoven, the chamber-sized ensemble produced a buoyant and transparent sound, such that much of the details were not submerged by the force of delivery. Never lacking in intensity, its tragic vistas were well realised in this vivid reading led by Bell sitting in the concertmaster’s chair.

Taking the spotlight, Bell’s urgent yet sensitive solo reading in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor (Op.64) showed he knew the true meaning of appassionato. A bright, sugary tone served its lyrical pages like a dream, and when push came to shove, his ardent manner and unmannered virtuosity lit up the stage.

Never showy for its own sake, the music benefited from his commitment. The minor exception was Bell’s own dazzling cadenza for the first movement – spotlessly delivered – which sounded a tad overdone for Mendelssohn’s more intimate style. The slow movement was loveliness itself and the ebullient finale sparkled like champagne.

Bell’s stunning solo encore – a cunning set of variations on Yankee Doodle (after the example by Vieuxtemps) - cued enormous cheers from the audience.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A major (Op.92) continued where the overture left off, another fleet-footed performance that did not come across as lightweight. The music was a sure winner in itself, its four movements bounding with pulse and kinetic energy. Superbly judged by Bell and his charges, the performance flowed unimpeded and shone from start to finish. The standing ovation accorded was well deserved.

The slow movement, in particular, was a showcase of sublimity. Gently pulsing like a vital heartbeat, it unfolded with a glorious sense of inevitability. The seamless clarinet solos from Matthew Hunt lingered long in the mind after the music had ceased. Heaven-storming climaxes aside, surely this is a sign of musical greatness.

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