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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Joshua Bell Conducts

  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Joshua Bell
Sony Classical 88725-49176-2 72m
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This release was recently reviewed by Classical Net contributor Robert Cummings (Sony 49176), who praised this release enthusiastically. He's right to be effusive, for these are really very fine performances. Bell is still a reasonably young and justly famous violin virtuoso, but little attention has been paid to his music directorship, which he's held since 2011. Actually, little attention has been paid to the Academy as a whole; a pity considering that some of Neville Marriner's late work finds him in excellent form and the ensemble is never anything less than first-class. Bell is of course a great talent, but his violin playing is not the favorite of any of my respected violinist friends, nor is he mine. Yet in the concertmaster's chair he proves surprisingly insightful. He didn't make his name as chamber musician, but neither is he known for being self-indulgent. So the results speak for themselves.

As Mr. Cummings insightfully noted, Bell is hardly looking back to the Romantic style of Beethoven interpretation. Happily, his view is incisive and fleet, demanding a rhythmic accuracy in these works that is essential. I won't say that he downplays the drama that's ubiquitous in Beethoven, but neither does he shove it in your face. This makes the Fourth Symphony particularly excellent. The introduction is suitably weighty and then shifts effortlessly. The performance as a whole is one of the better ones in recent memory. As more and more conductors try to impose "ideas" on Beethoven that more often than not fail, Bell simply lets his players play in a time-honored tradition. Even with the relatively small ensemble size, the Academy sounds pleasingly full-bodied.

This fullness of tone pays dividends in a Seventh that I enjoyed far more than anticipated. The Seventh, as I pointed out in my Detroit Symphony Beethoven reviews, cannot simply rely on a supposed "vision". Neither can the Fourth, in case anyone was wondering, but the latter work is less challenging interpretively and is less likely to be mangled by good conductors with bad ideas. To the gain of all involved, Bell proves a good conductor with good ideas. He maintains the swift view of the Fourth, but more importantly retains the rhythmic demands imposed in the former work. The results are fresh and invigorating. One might miss the sheer power and glow of Blomstedt (an underrated version if ever there were), Bohm, and Jochum, or the slashing virtuosity of Toscanini, Szell and – as a sleeper pick – Doráti. Still, even if it's not your one and only Seventh, it doesn't mean it shouldn't be one you have. Excellent sound from Sony/BMG and packaging that gives a sly wink to the days of vinyl complete a very good buy.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman