BRUCH A Scottish Fantasy (Bell)
Joshua Bell was in his teens when he first recorded the Bruch G minor and Mendelssohn concertos with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields for Decca. Edward Greenfield in Gramophone praised Bell’s ‘rich tone, flawless technique and phenomenal articulation’ but felt the performances ultimately lacked ‘mystery’, and that the violinist seemed ‘almost too sure where he is going’.
Three decades on, in this new Sony recording of the Bruch Concerto (coupled this time with the Scottish Fantasy), the technical finesse and interpretative confidence Greenfield identified remain salient features of Bell’s music-making, although he’s greatly expanded his expressive arsenal. At the very opening of the concerto, for instance – so pristinely played in the Decca account – there’s now more than a dash of gypsy soulfulness and spice. His tone fairly throbs with vibrato, ornately embroidered with portamento. How much warmer the Adagio is, too; less poised and aloof, more ardent and elastic.
This elasticity is perhaps even more crucial in the Scottish Fantasy, with its fancifully discursive solo part, and Bell’s rubato feels natural and authoritative throughout. There’s persuasive urgency as well as sweetness, for example, in his playing of the tune ‘Through the wood, laddie’ in the first movement (at 5'03"). And while his Scherzo feels stodgy compared with some rival accounts, I find the coy, almost sexy way Bell shapes the grazioso passage at 2'00" utterly irresistible.
I’ll wager the stodginess results from Bell taking on the dual role of soloist and conductor. Certainly the unanimity of ensemble displayed here says a lot about the rapport he’s established with the Academy since succeeding Marriner as music director in 2011. But, particularly in the Fantasy’s Scherzo and finale, there’s a nagging sense of caution in the orchestral playing – and the engineering only makes matters worse. Greenfield rightly complained about Decca’s artificial spotlighting of the soloist, and we get more or less the same imbalance from Sony. Here, however, the Academy not only seem to be playing half a hall’s length behind Bell but their tone is gauzily disembodied as well. Philips got the balance exactly right in a superb recording by Akiko Suwanai and the Academy under Marriner. And then, of course, Heifetz’s dazzling accounts from the early Sixties still sound terrific.