The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: American violinist Joshua Bell is the new concertmaster, conductor and music director of The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra. And his first release for Sony Classical features outstanding readings of two Beethoven symphonies.

June 1, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

It is time to play some more catch-up.

This past season was so busy with local events that I often had to overlook other important or interesting news in the world of classical music.

One of them us that the photogenic American violinist Joshua Bell (below) – himself a heart-throb superstar who always sells out the house – started his tenure as the new music director, concertmaster and conductor of the British chamber music orchestra The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

joshua Bell

Bell took his first chair and took up his baton last September with an initial contract of three years. He succeeds the American pianist Murray Perahia, who resides in London and led the group from 2000 to 2010.

Bell is the latest conductor to take over the ASMF group (below) from others director including Iona Brown, Kenneth Sillito and the famous founder Sir Neville Mariner, who made more than 500 recordings with the ASMF.

Marriner, by the way, is now 89 but is still the Life Director of ASMF, which gave its inaugural concert in 1959 with 12 players, all male.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Anyway, The Ear finds the first release by Bell and ASMF extremely satisfying.

Contrary to what you might expect, the new recording does NOT feature a violin concerto as a chance for Bell to show case his talents.

Instead it offers two Beethoven symphonies: the famous one is No. 7, said to be the favorite of many Beethoven-philes, including The Ear. (The famous second movement, done by Bell and the ASMF, is in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The release couples that famous work with the Symphony No. 4, which is underappreciated and under-performed, coming in between the famous Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the most famous No. 5.

joshua bell ASMF beethoven cd cover

In both cases, Bell turns in exacting, if  mainstream rather than revolutionary, performances full of balance, energy, sharp attacks and releases and precise rhythms as well as great singing lyricism – all the qualities one expects from great violin or string playing. Plus, I like the chamber scale and the emphasis on counterpoint and dialogue.

And from what my ears tell me, Bell favors brisk rhythms that keep you engaged, but they are not rushed.

All in all, I find it a very listenable album, one I have returned to again and again – and expect you will too.

Are these definitive performances? Well, The Ear long ago gave up on the idea of a definitive performance, which is and should be an impossibility in music and in art in general. Definitiveness would kill off the very qualities of originality and liveliness we most value in art.

But suffice it to say that these performance by Joshua Bell and The Academy strike me as among the most appealing you will find.

You have fine but never fussy interpretations of a well-picked program in which Beethoven (below) seems allowed to speak for himself in the both extroverted and introspective moods represented by these two contrasting symphonies And the sound engineering is terrific in providing transparency and scale.

Beethoven big

All in all, I would not be surprised to see this recording nominated for a Grammy or other international awards.

And I also suspect The Academy made a very smart and populist choice in bringing such a high-profile but versatile and seemingly unpretentious player as Joshua Bell – who wrote his own liner notes about the music and these performances as well as his new role as the leader of ASMF. He may well attract younger audiences and inexperienced audiences — which all classical music groups are now trying to do.

Here is a link to the group’s website:

And here is a link to an essay a by Joshua Bell on why classical music should not be stuffy. It is a fine read:

And here is an interview with Joshua Bell did NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog about his new role (below):

Joshua Bell with ASMF

Do you have an opinion about Joshua Bell?

Do you have a favorite Beethoven symphony and Beethoven interpreter?

And do you have a favorite recording by ASMF (I still treasure the now out-of-print recording of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade for Strings coupled with Grieg’s charming suite “In Holberg’s Time.”)

The Ear wants to hear.

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