The star-studded violinist brought arrogance and verve to the Four Seasons
“So charismatic…” a woman sighed behind me, as Joshua Bell took the stage. The American violinist may be in his fifties now, but he still has a childish figure – a star-studded leader bringing a bit of bluster to one of London’s most venerable ensembles.
It’s been well over a year since the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was able to perform with their musical director, and this reunion concert – given the big screen, Hollywood treatment on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall – n did not skimp on fireworks music.
There are no more people than Vivaldi’s The four Seasons, the sequence of four violin concertos that takes listeners from the song of spring birds and a summer storm to the dances of the fall harvests and the winter cold.
Regularly deployed (with varying degrees of consent) for Venetian tourists and waiting customers, it is music that feeds on gut strings and close pieces: texture and breath making it pass from a flat reproduction and too familiar to a living being.
With just 25 string musicians joining Bell on stage, the Academy had to work hard to make its mark. By enlarging his story to space, we had music with as much to say about the 20th century as it did about the 18th, not afraid of blurring stylistic lines, of flirting with anachronism.
Intersecting concertos with Astor Piazzolla’s “king of tango” The four seasons of Buenos Aires (orchestrated by Leonid Desyatnikov) to create a unique cycle, Bell and his musicians untied the common threads.
The sigh portamenti which provide the warm haze of an Argentinian summer drifted like the smoke of a bonfire in an Italian autumn; the timbre and snap of a Buenos Aires tango found itself transformed into studded peasant dances, plucked strings bursting like champagne corks in the background.
The relationship between Bell and its players is obvious. The solo and duet passages brought Caroline Dale’s cello and Robert Smissen’s viola to the fore, each echoing Bell’s mellow, singing tone and relaxed delivery, performances less focused on speed and l dazzling only on the spacious details and the sung lines.
But while we’ve had palpitations and sobs in full bags, I’m not sure the rumble of Piazzolla’s dances, the sharpness of her urban musical repartee was quite convincing. Vivaldi was the original land, Piazzolla the vacation romance that just didn’t feel the same in the real world.