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26.2.09

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

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Bach Violin Concertos, J. Fischer,
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
In the 1980s the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields represented a certain approach to music, a scaled-down, impeccably clean sound, especially in Mozart. Thanks to their work on the soundtrack to Amadeus, that hallmark sound is the way that many people think Mozart's music should sound, and their classic recordings from that period, under Neville Marriner, still hold up to scrutiny. Then the historically informed performance (HIP) movement really got into full swing and took over the group's territory, engulfing the Classical period. Admittedly ASMF had mostly dropped off my radar until the last few years, when some of their recent CDs -- Kate Royal's recital album and Nicola Benedetti's Mendelssohn disc -- came across my desk, and the results have not been uniformly excellent.

The group's best work since the turn of the millennium -- when Marriner retired, the group returned to its conductor-less origins, with Murray Perahia serving as Principal Guest Conductor -- has been their partnerships with talented violinists who sit temporarily in the concertmaster's chair. The list includes Joshua Bell (a rather vanilla recording of Vivaldi's Seasons last year, most interesting for also including Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata), Hilary Hahn (Brahms and Stravinsky, but with Marriner), Julian Rachlin, Janine Jansen, Gil Shaham, and now Julia Fischer. An Ionarts favorite we have reviewed several times in Washington and Munich, Fischer is so often not merely above reproach but superlative in technical achievement and musicality -- like her extraordinary Beethoven concerto in Baltimore -- that a performance like these Bach concertos at Strathmore on Tuesday night can seem disappointing when it does not thrill.

The Strathmore concert concluded an American tour by the Academy and Fischer, celebrating the group's 50th anniversary and promoting their new recording of the Bach concerti for one or two violins, an album that has become a rave bestseller in the download market. Heard live, Fischer's marvelously clear, lyrical playing was luscious to hear, with all of the notes on the inner parts of the beat pronounced, not "notey" but distinct within the melodic arc. As on some of the best parts of their Seasons disc with Joshua Bell, harpsichordist John Constable's continuo playing came to the fore in the slow movements, engaging in a dialogue with Fischer's violin. Fischer's pianissimo and legato line, especially in the third movement of the A minor concerto, was elegant, but the rare attempts to ornament the solo line only made one realize how spare this rendition was in terms of embellishments.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Julia Fischer: Bach Done Well (Washington Post, February 26)

Kyle MacMillan, Violinist Fischer shares gift in Boulder (Denver Post, February 20)

Philippa Kiraly, Julia Fischer anchors well-designed program (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 17)

Joshua Kosman, Fischer teams with Academy for robust Bach (San Francisco Chronicle, February 15)
      "The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, I suspect, is the tofu of musical ensembles -- hearty and slightly flavorless, but supremely able to adopt the character of whatever musician it partners with."

Mark Swed, Julia Fischer's bestselling Bach live if not always alive (Culture Monster, February 12)

Timothy Mangan, Julia Fischer hooks Bach concertos in O.C. (Orange County Register, February 12)
As noted of Fischer's recording of the Bach solo works, her approach to Bach is a little too clinical, playing Bach with a restraint that is in some ways the polar opposite of Anne-Sophie Mutter's muscular, idiosyncratic way with the Bach concerti on her recent recording (also heard live last year). There must be a middle ground that brings something of Mutter's visceral excitement to bear on this very beautiful but somewhat ethereal performance. The best parts of the evening were the modern English scores that bookended the two Bach solo violin concertos, beginning with Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10, the young composer's tribute to his teacher, completed as a chamber orchestra commission for the Salzburg Festival when Britten was 24 (coincidentally, close to Fischer's age).

The theme, an enigmatic mix of explosive pizzicati and strong-handed passagework, is run through a series of historical styles, in a way that recalls what a gifted improviser would do to entertain at a cocktail party ("Play Misty in the style of Liszt!"). This rendition featured throaty solos from principal violist Robert Smissen and a Moto perpetuo seventh variation of buzzing tremoli, à la the Flight of the Bumblebee. This pleasing but showy work was matched at the concert's conclusion by William Walton's Sonata for String, the composer's adaptation of his earlier A minor string quartet, made at the suggestion of Neville Marriner and premiered by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. In this beautiful work, as in the Britten, the presence of a conductor was missed: even though Fischer and other section leaders gave cues, there were alignment issues among the ensemble as tempos shifted or at delicate junctions, more in the modern selections than in the Bach. A very disciplined fourth movement, all constant thrumming pulse and jumpy, agogic accents, was capped by the last movement of Mozart's F major Divertimento, a reference to ASMF's history with Mozart and a pleasing ending to a good evening.

This evening at Strathmore, Washington Performing Arts Society will present the London Philharmonic Orchestra (February 26, 8 pm), with conductor Vladimir Jurowski and pianist Leon Fleisher. The varied program includes Ligeti's Atmosphères.

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