Violinist Joshua Bell is always welcome as attested by his two sell-out evening concerts with that other musical icon, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre. There was, however, the prospect of consolation in a concert which teamed Bell with the Academy Chamber Ensemble, making a total of 10 musicians in the same acoustically superior space. Admittedly, the concert was relatively short, with just two items, but the 11am start made it easier to get tickets and coffee (or even lunch) was at hand afterwards. In other words, it had all the makings of an enjoyable autumn day in Melbourne.
The Divertimento in D for strings K136 by Mozart served to introduce the chamber ensemble before focusing attention on the soloist. It was a spirited piece, well-known and typically Mozart so that care was given to the synchronicity of playing, the accidentals and so forth. The ensemble achieved a full rich sound, the cellos and bass underpinning the whole, as the upper strings were strongly resonant.
There was no annoying clapping between movements, but unfortunately there was worse: coughing from all parts of the auditorium. However there was little time to dwell on this before the final Presto seized our attention. First violin Jennifer Godson led by example in this spirited scale-based yet melodic movement. This may not have been the full famous orchestra, but the nine performers gave every sense of what standards were natural to them. It only remained to hear what effect the addition of a soloist like Joshua Bell would have on this already superior chamber ensemble.
We did not have to wait long. The musicians briefly left the stage and returned with the soloist. There is always interest in Joshua Bell’s violin, a Stradivarius of course, but apparently even more valuable than the Strad he sold to buy it!
The work chosen was by Mendelssohn, his String Octet in E flat Opus 20. This work in four movements, and from a later period than the Mozart, also served to illustrate the capacities of all the instruments on stage, in particular Bell’s violin. The work was strongly melodic with a powerful resonance even in the pizzicato passages. Although it was an octet, the violin certainly had a solo role which Bell brought to the fore, although without arrogance or fuss.
This was most evident in the second movement, Andante, introduced by the lower strings, but a showpiece for the emotive capacities of all instruments. It is easy to convince oneself that the “soloist” had the best of the composition but in fact it is almost impossible to make such judgments, and indeed, there is little point in doing so. The overall effect was pure Mendelssohn, meaning it was romantic and sweet, and the players were literally in harmony each with the other.
As for the final two movements, they showed a different side of the ensemble. Both were fast and true to the composer’s directions. First was a Scherzo, with a “light” Allegro, notable for the scampering nature of Bell’s violin, and the brilliance of the staccato section. In terms of virtuoso performance, however, this was nothing compared to the final Presto. It was truly impressive that all players were so in sync despite the demands of the tempo. Yes, the performer we had come to see showed all of his still youthful-seeming energy and brilliance, but he was in very good company. It was not all due to the famous Strad!
Editor’s note: What’s all the fuss about with the Huberman Strad? Hear what Joshua Bell has to say!