The last time superstar violinist Joshua Bell brought the Academy of St Martin in the Fields to Symphony Hall, in 2012, the bill included a big violin concerto — the Beethoven — and Beethoven’s Symphony No.7. Sunday, in a return engagement sponsored by the Celebrity Series, the big violin concerto was the Tchaikovsky, and the Beethoven symphony was No. 8. There was nothing revelatory about the program, or the performances, but plenty to enjoy.
Bell conducted from the concertmaster’s chair, using both his body and his bow to cue the rest of the 40-member orchestra. First and second violins were not antiphonally seated, but in the end that hardly mattered. Prokofiev’s brief, Haydn-inspired Symphony No. 1, the “Classical,” was the attractive program opener. Bell’s reading was less acidic than is often the case, with full-blooded contributions from horns and timpani. He kept the motor running throughout; the Larghetto tripped delicately, the Gavotte had more swagger than usual, and the Finale went with easy brio.
Bell’s tone in the Tchaikovsky was sumptuous but not sweet, and the big orchestra climaxes were not whipped up. His first-movement cadenza was a piece of teasing theater, not to mention virtuosity; the movement itself drew a standing ovation from the audience. The Canzonetta, languid but still Andante, as marked, featured ripe-to-bursting winds; the Finale was a breathless sleigh ride. Here and throughout the afternoon, the splendid wind section and French horns stood out in clear relief, the relatively small string section giving them room to shine.
Bach’s Double Violin Concerto was to have followed intermission, but Pamela Frank had to cancel because of a minor injury. The replacement was the six-minute “Elegy for Orchestra,” Benjamin Britten’s violin-and-strings arrangement of the slow movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto, in memory of the legendary French horn player Dennis Brain. Bell combined beauty of tone with restraint and a subtle rubato; the performance was aided no little by a cellist’s lovely contribution.
Full of surprises and witty humor, Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, like Prokofiev’s First, has more than a little Haydn in it. The first movement’s militant opening is undercut by an incongruously humble second theme; the second movement, perhaps inspired by Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony, seems to spoof the newly invented metronome; the third is a heavy-footed minuet; and in the finale, thunder-and-lightning alternates with clearing skies. All this was conveyed with clarity and conviction. A performance, it turns out, doesn’t have to be revelatory if it’s this good.
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Joshua Bell
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, March 20
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.