There are so many great recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies, anything new has an ‘angle’ or should aspire to be something special. This new recording by Joshua Bell directing from the concertmaster’s chair attempts both.
The orchestra in question is the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the repertoire, my two favourite Beethoven Symphonies, 4 and 7. Bell has recently been named the ASMF’s new music director. An interesting choice and the first since the retirement of founder Sir Neville Marriner.
The orchestra’s members are made up from many of the A list pros from London orchestras and freelancers. Does this a crack band make? Surely, a great orchestra is more than the sum of its parts. Even the great Abbado pick up vehicle, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, presents a mini season or three each year. The Academy is primarily a touring and recording band.
That said, they do justice to the great works without adding anything too special. Both symphonies highlight some very musical phrasing (the slow movements of both works are played beautifully) and Bell obviously insists on superior ensemble. He uses a Beethoven sized orchestra (no doubling, which is very common), and in this way, the strings sound a little thin, especially in the 7th.
I consider Joshua Bell one of the top fiddlers and a very interesting musician. Here, his direction has produced quality performances, but with so many fantastic CDs already available in great sound (Kleiber, Karajan, Klemperer, Reiner), is this release needed? Unsure. Yet, with the state of the classical (non) recording industry, any new release on a major label must be considered a symbol. I’m not sure whether this is the beginning of a Bell Beethoven recorded cycle (he’s performing the cycle over the next four years) — if so, I hope we get a little more of the gravitas and musical depths found by the other conductors mentioned. The first instalment is a positive first step. And, to be fair, it’s early days for the signed partnership.
The recording quality is good enough to unravel some of the complex orchestration, especially in the exposition of the 7th’s first movement and its fourth movement coda. Since my primary audio system has been made unusable for a month while my music studio is being fixed from a flood, I evaluated this CD on my secondary system. I’ll add a comment next week re the recording when I hear it on the main system.
Catalogue Number: 88725491762
Label: Sony Classical
Playing time: 72:10
Listen to excerpts at Joshua Bell’s website.