The Academy of Saint Martin In The Fields (Usher Hall: 10 January 2016)

Image: ASMF org.

Image: ASMF org.

“The quality of the playing was at a consistently high standard throughout.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

A cold wet sleety January afternoon did not deter the hardy Edinburgh cognoscenti from gathering eagerly and loudly in the foyer of the Usher Hall on Sunday.  The Hall’s Twitter feed had advised  the 250 or so who had arranged to pick up their tickets from the box office to come early because of demand.  To begin with this certainly stopped the ticket queue from standing in the rain, and one got the impression the queue wouldn’t have minded anyway, but by 2.45pm the line was well out of the doors.

The draw was, of course, The Academy of Saint Martin In The Fields, perhaps the finest chamber orchestra in the world, now undergoing a new lease of life under the directorship of player/conductor Joshua Bell, subway busker and near megastar. Bell was certainly a brilliant catch for this magnificent band after Sir Neville Marriner’s retirement four years ago.

The other huge name on the bill was cellist Steven Isserlis, again, world class in stature.  The combined group are on a UK and European Tour, and it was Edinburgh’s turn to hear the magic.

The programme selection was both esoteric and matinee attractive.  The concert was relatively short, at a total of less than an hour and a half’s playing time, but nobody left feeling they had been short changed.  In art, as perhaps in matters of the heart, it is not so much the duration, but the intensity of the experience that provides the enduring memory.

The programme began with a snippet by Dvorak, “Silent Woods”, originally  “Waldesruhe”, a piece for piano for four hands, later transcribed for cello, and ultimately for cello and orchestra, which was the version we heard. Quiet, gentle, soothing, with flavours, understandably, of Smetana’s Ma Vlast, one wondered whether this lullaby-like jewel, played with such beguiling ease, would send the postprandial audience to sleep.

If it did (and the enthusiastic applause suggested otherwise) the blast of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony would have them wide awake in no time.  This is not a great symphony, and apart from the lively Allegro vivace con brio, which the orchestra delivered in cracking form, the remaining three movements (a comment on the composition, not the playing), save for a spirited final Allegro vivace, plodded along a little.

After the interval we were treated to the second movement from Schumann’s posthumously published violin concerto,  along with a tiny but fascinating codetta written by Benjamin Britten.  Ten minutes of understated, beautiful playing, with Bell the absolute master of his art.

The concert ended with the “must have” item, the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. What followed was secure, utterly capable ensemble playing with the two soloists interweaving with each other as warp and weft.  There was none of the stodginess you sometimes get in Brahm’s full on orchestration with the band moving nimbly through the familiar passages in support of the soloists.

Overall, not only did this concert have eminent soloists and an interesting programme, the quality of the playing was at a consistently high standard throughout.  At the time of their foundation 55 years ago, Sir Neville Marriner promised that the Academy would never go on stage unless thoroughly rehearsed.  True today as it was then, what we got was  not so much a concert as a performance, in the truest and fullest sense of the word.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 January)

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