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Album review: Successful merging of period and modern in Joshua Bell Beethoven symphonies

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Violinist Joshua Bell is now leader of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Violinist Joshua Bell is now leader of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

You could easily argue that the world doesn’t need any more recordings of Beethoven symphonies. But violinist Joshua Bell successfully argues otherwise in his new album with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

bellbeethovenTo be sure, this is not a world-changing recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and No. 7 just released on the Sony Masterworks label.

Rather, Bell as leader of the small modern-instrument orchestra presents fresh and compelling interpretations that put the emphasis on grace and clarity, thanks to some techniques borrowed from historically informed performances.

As music director, Bell takes the 38 London musicians through these symphonies briskly, but never too quickly. It sounds like Bell has a very clear idea of what he wants from his collaborators, starting with short strokes of the bow and a near absence of vibrato, which gives the strings a light, lithe, sound.

Beethoven loved dynamic contrasts, something Bell emphasizes — always in good taste. The orchestral balance is superb.

Bell has clearly not only absorbed a lot of skill and wisdom in leading an orchestra over his three decades as a violin soloist, but he has a remarkable vision of how to make an ensemble sound greater than the sum of its parts.

If I have one complaint with the recording, it’s in the recorded sound. This studio recording tends toward a boomy bass, which takes away from the otherwise limpid audio.

You can find out more about Bell’s work with the orchestra and listen to some excerpts here.

Here is Bell leading the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in a portion of the second movement of Symphony No. 7 in a 2008 concert in Nicosia for the Pharos Chamber Music Festival:

John Terauds

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