Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oddly Billed, Mr. Bell

Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell

The forthrightness of this article may be condemned by some, but the phenomenon of Joshua Bell, International Superstar Violinist, seems often to impede his artistic maturity and interfere with his music-making. Blessed with the peerless Academy of St Martin in the Fields in their latest release from Sony of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven, this inevitable career step oddly bills Mr. Bell as conductor and concertmaster.  

Questions spring to mind: Does he play sitting or standing? Where? If seated, how does he not stab his stand partner? Does he play from full score, violin part, or memory? If from score, who turns the pages? He has played with orchestras, but has he ever played in one? If this is meant to start a trend, could one hope for Sarah Chang’s Bruckner 6th, or Mahler’s 4th from Midori? Hilary Hahn’s The Planets

This wisely chosen ensemble, sympathetic and convivial, supports Mr. Bell every step of the way, but the disparity of the orchestral choirs is jarring. The winds play gloriously, unified almost to a fault, and the brass are exemplary. However, the violins’ grainy tone, instead of being robust and firm, careens from expletive, jabbed, jagged, punctured noises to grating and scrappy ones.  The violas contribute strange bogeys, and the lower strings occasionally sound like a troupe of Tarantino’s gimps in a morass. 

In Mr. Bell’s autobiographical program notes, which are neither interesting nor informative, he writes that his “ideal conductor should give the orchestra confidence in their own musical initiatives.”  It’s possible his knowledge of wind instruments is insufficient to hamper their efforts, but through magisterial affectation of string articulations coy and cute, bulging hairpins, delayed vibrato and reprehensibly garish portato – these unnatural attenuations prove unwelcome distractions.

The most successful music here is in the scherzos, leaving the first movements suffering from a flaccid flow of time, square phrasing, cookie-cutter accents, dynamics in ungradated planes, and aimless developments. The finales are unbalanced and blustery and the slow movements are plodding. Please, Sir, may we have some more leading?

“Joy” he mentions three times in the booklet. With the emotional depths of a pops concert and bursts of the kind of energy used to beat rugs, the overall impression of joy here is a bobbing smiley face, not a reward hard earned.

Joshua Bell is not an ignorant adolescent or a dim rake. How many musicians does it take to change Mr. Bell’s bulb?


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