BEETHOVEN: Symphonies No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60; No. 7 in A, Op. 92 – Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/ Joshua Bell, concertmaster & cond. – Sony Classical 88725 49176, 76:18 ***1/2:
Joshua Bell was named Music Director of the ASMF in the middle of 2011, having worked with the ensemble for up to ten years previously, and this disc inaugurates that event. He also has been active as a conductor as well for about the same period of time. I don’t know whether he plans to conduct most of his performances from the concertmaster’s chair or not, but he does here. Personally I find this to be a bit of a dog-and-pony trick and really don’t see the point of it unless the conductor just likes to play with his orchestra, which might be the case.
Interpretatively I think it hinders the effort—this is after all an old practice long abandoned. But Bell in his notes does speak of his desire to appropriate some of the historically informed practices in his performances, and aside the visual of him sitting in the concertmaster’s chair we hear the requisite non-vibrato passages, spunky brass, and up-tempos, though with a modern sensibility and modern instrument effect.
All of this has been done before of course, and nothing in these readings will strike anyone as particularly revelatory. They are immaculately played—one would expect little else from perhaps the greatest chamber orchestra in the world—and slightly faceless, though in Beethoven at this point in history that can be a little refreshing. The orchestra sounds small but pointed, controlled and vigorous, beautiful and refined. Bell claims that Carlos Kleiber was a hero of his, and the recordings that legend made of these two symphonies influenced him greatly. Maybe—Bell is nowhere near achieving the finesse and utter joy that Kleiber finds in No. 7 for instance, though he is much closer in No. 4—yet his phrasing and energy could serve as an updated clone of Kleiber in some respects. Repeats by the way, are taken in the first and last movements of each symphony.
The sound is essentially a bright analog sort of perspective with enough digital clarity to be acceptable to most audiophiles, though no one will mistake this for a state of the art recording. Evidently Sony plans a complete Beethoven series with these forces, which I think will be their first such effort with a chamber orchestra since Michael Tilson-Thomas’s go with the English Chamber Orchestra 40 years ago. It will be instructive to watch Bell’s development. As for now, not the best, but not bad at all, and quite enjoyable.