Chamber Music, Orchestral Music Media Review Print

Bell and the ASMF Play Bach

January 23, 2015 - Williamsburg, MA:

J.S. Bach, Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, S.1068, Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, S.1004, arr. by Felix Mendelssohn for piano accompaniment and orchestrated by Julian Malone, Concertos for violin and orchestra, Nos. 1 in A minor, S.1041, and 2 in E, S.1042, Gavotte en rondeau from Partita No. 3 in E, S.1006, arr. by Robert Schumann for piano accompaniment and orchestrated by Julian Malone; Joshua Bell, violin (Stradivarius "Gibson ex-Huberman", Cremona, 1713) and leader, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; SONY Classical 88843 08779 2 © 2013, TT 50:01, $11.88.

Bell was named Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF) in May 2011; this is his first recording with them, and their first with SONY Classical, with whom Bell has had an exclusive contract for a decade or more. In it, he is leading the smaller chamber ensemble from the concert-master position, rather than conducting. The ASMF, founded in 1958 by Sir Neville Marriner, is not a "period-instrument" ensemble focused on historically informed performances, but rather one focused on clear, polished, refined, and smooth performances of mostly well-known and loved works, particularly from the Classical era.

Julian Milone, the orchestrator of the two transcriptions, is a second violinist in the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, a graduate of the Royal College of Music, and professor of violin at Kent Academy of Music.

Bach is Bell's hero and inspiration. He writes in his note in the accompanying booklet that he has known, loved, and worshipped Bach since childhood, when he heard his mother and sisters playing the Inventions on the piano and observed his father listening to a recording of the B-minor Mass. He avows worshiping at the altar of Bach. The performances here are excellent, the balance between soloist and ensemble generally good.

The booklet is a bare-bones production, consisting of eight un-numbered pages, three of which (the two covers and [5]) are full-page photos of Bell, the latter against a portion of a music score (the Chaconne?) as background, which is also reproduced in negative style on the face of the disk. No photo of Bach is found anywhere, however. Only Bell's name, without that of the ASMF, appears on the disk. Two more such photos are found on the two sides of the tray card, with the names of the works in the lower left corner of the outside one. Page [2] is a full-height photo of the Strad in profile; it appears facing the reader on the right side of page [3] next to the track listing with timings on the left. All photos except those of the instrument are in black and white; indeed, that and Bach's name in red on the front cover, the face of the disk, and on page [2], Bell's on page [3], and the ASMF's on page [7] along with a red bar across the top of page [4] are the only color to be found anywhere.

Bell's note occupies pages [4] and [6]. It is essentially a personal paean to Bach, headed by three quotes from more recent composers (Beethoven, Reger, and Wagner) with another from Berlioz at the top of the second page. Bell talks about beginning his daily playing with one of the solo sonatas and partitas, often the Chaconne recorded here, and débuting in a Bach violin concerto at age 7. He also talks about his reasons for the choices of the shorter works to fill out the CD after the two sonatas, which are played first. The tone is direct, informal, and personal, and very pleasing. A photo of Bell rehearsing (or recording?) with the ASMF occupies the top half or so of page [7] above the ensemble personnel info and recording credits.

This is a lovely recording with the performance quality, long expected, simply assumed from the ASMF. The collaboration between it and Bell is truly seamless and perfect. The tone of Bell's Strad is gorgeous and beautifully supported. It is, however, not a very long recording. The role of the ASMF in the "filler" works, which represent about one-third of the whole, is also rather minimal, giving, together with the general graphic presentation, the unfortunate overall impression that the recording is really a showcase for Bell more than for the partnership. The nature of the accompanying booklet also suggests to me that it was prepared more for the digital download market than the recorded music collector, because several of the details about the works given in the bibliographic-style header above, such as the key signatures and S. numbers for the "filler" works, are not found anywhere, but are provided online, almost as if SONY didn't want to invest any more money than necessary in the product; it deserves more, even if it is a bit short.