After the warring Jets and Sharks running about the Royal Albert Hall stage twice the previous day in West Side Story, normal order was restored for this matinee with a modest array of chairs for the forty-one players of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a year shy of its sixtieth-anniversary.
Nine years younger, ASMF’s music director is Joshua Bell, who directs from the leader’s position when he’s not the soloist. He fulfilled both roles here, directing from his violin part in three of the pieces, the full score obviously embedded in his memory. For the Saint-Saëns he stood centre-stage and brought the work to the Proms for the first time since 1989 when Ida Haendel played it. Bell, digging musically into his strings at the opening, but then sweet as honey itself in the slow movement and alive to the changes between the Finale’s tarantella and both its longer-breathed second subject and developing chorale, was just as effective at turning and bringing the ASMF with him. It’s an unusual Concerto and one that deserves greater outings.
The concert had started with Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bell – magically – seemed to be drawing the winds’ opening chords as if by an invisible gossamer thread from the end of his bow. A miss-sounded oboe note in the final of these chords notwithstanding, this laid a nice basis for the scurrying strings and, while I missed a continuing sense of magic, there was nice work from tuba-player Martin Knowles’s only contribution to the afternoon, adding depth to Bottom’s ‘ee-aws’
The request from the stewards not to applaud during the second half until the end of the Beethoven unfortunately hadn’t percolated through to the whole audience, and a slight delay for the closing of parts elicited an unwelcome smattering of close at the quiet close of Frank Bridge’s poignant Lament composed to the memory of family friends and their daughter who died on the Lusitania as it was torpedoed off the Irish coast in the First World War. Bell again used his bow gently to layer the repeated phrases in a softly eloquent and moving performance; the serried ranks of empty chairs on the back of the platform (in reality waiting for the BBC Symphony Chorus’s contribution to the evening Prom), as if a silent reminder of the dead souls from the sinking.
Out of the quiet should have appeared Beethoven’s slow introduction: the effect would have worked well if we had been able to hear it as intended, but with Bell whipping up his forces into the Allegro vivace – there really did seem to be a breath of fresh air in the hall in a wonderfully spirited rendition. Who needs Currentzis when you have Bell simply playing Beethoven’s score? No need for excessive gestures, just fidelity to Beethoven’s intentions. It was a wonderful performance, with Bell matching Nicholas Collon and his Aurora Orchestra in a feat of memory that encompassed the music.