Beethoven Symphonies Nos 4 & 7
It is nothing if not a bold move for violinist Joshua Bell to have chosen two such familiar masterpieces for his debut recording as music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF), but it has come off triumphantly. These are splendidly alert performances, responding to every nuance in the music, and they made me listen to Beethoven with fresh ears. Particularly impressive is the pianissimo playing Bell obtains from the orchestra, for instance in the approach to the recapitulation in the first movement of Symphony No. 4. It’s a point in his Symphonies where Beethoven often liked to create a sense of hushed expectancy, but never did he conceive a longer or more tense stretch of pianissimo than here. Bell maintains the atmosphere of mystery admirably, before whipping up a last-moment crescendo that leads in to the explosive reprise of the main theme with tremendous force.
No less successful is the tip-toeing fugato passage in the famous second movement of Symphony No. 7, though here, perhaps more than anywhere else, I became aware of the fact that first and second violins don’t answer each other from opposite sides as they would have done in Beethoven’s day but are bunched together on the left. No doubt, in directing from the leader’s chair, as Bell does, it’s more practical for him to have all his colleagues close at hand. But it’s a small point, particularly since Sony’s recording is exemplary, and the ASMF’s playing is admirable throughout. This recording is a real pleasure.