The longevity of conductors being legendary, it was not so surprising to find one of our consummate musical knights, Neville Marriner, choosing to celebrate his 92nd birthday by conducting the ensemble he created and with whom he is most obviously associated, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Recently returned from an extensive tour of the Far East, Marriner and his players displayed all the characteristics that have kept them at the forefront of music-making, with an unrivalled legacy of over 800 recordings and continuing accolades from far and wide. Even if performances can occasionally risk being anodyne, there is no gainsaying the high level of ensemble work, the technical precision, the fine sense of internal balance, the transparency of textures, an absence of quirkiness and personal point-making and an acute awareness of style without any obvious concessions towards the school of historically informed performance practice.

Sir Neville Marriner © Bill Page
Sir Neville Marriner
© Bill Page
Also unsurprising was the choice of composer for the first half: no other composer than Mozart has figured so frequently in Academy concert programmes and recordings. Proceedings opened with his “Haffner” Symphony, written at a time of prolific inventiveness in the summer of 1782. It has a celebratory air about it, even if it failed to leave an impressionable mark on the composer himself. By the time of its first performance in Vienna in March 1783, Mozart was writing: “My new “Haffner” Symphony has positively amazed me, for I had forgotten every single note of it.” How might he have viewed Marriner’s reading? Speeds in the opening Allegro con spirito were steady, the first few pages firmly packaged in a gritty sense of fortitude, with the lower strings powerfully underpinning the harmonic structure. A quality of playfulness infused the serenade-like Andante, the sweet-toned violins offset by mordant oboes and bassoons, and the movement drew to a close bathed in the rays of warming sunshine that often steal into living-rooms in the late afternoon. Perhaps a greater definition to the timpani line in the minuet would have underlined its festive character more and the Presto marking in the finale was, if anything, slightly understated, yet the upper strings in their scurrying scales sounded like a battalion of purposefully humming sewing-machines.

Art that conceals art defines great playing in Mozart’s piano concertos. Till Fellner offered an expansive, well-considered and beautifully modulated view of K482, its grand E flat major signature key resonating strongly in the outer movements. In hardly any of Mozart’s other works for piano and orchestra is one likely to encounter such vibrant and pointed writing for wind, and in the central Andante where the solemn interludes of C minor lead into a dark and searching inwardness there were quite exquisite sounds from flute, clarinet (Mozart omits oboes entirely), bassoon and horn. Marriner’s care in the accompaniment in matching the scale and projection of his soloist was much in evidence here, picking out individual strands like the velvet-coated violas in order to emphasise the darker mood. In the finale, Fellner again showed what a discerning Mozartian he is, the classical proportions never under strain, his right hand dancing brightly over the keys, and in the final short cadenza a twinkle-in-the-eye approach, almost Chopinesque in its brilliance, before jubilant strings and piping wind rounded off a performance of rare distinction.

Sir Neville Marriner and the ASMF © Alan Kerr | ASMF
Sir Neville Marriner and the ASMF
© Alan Kerr | ASMF

Bizet was a precocious child. At the age of four he could read music, at ten he was already a pupil at the Paris Conservatoire, and when he was just seventeen he composed a symphony that had to wait until 1935 for its first performance. Amazingly so, one is tempted to say, since this delightful work positively teems with joie de vivre. The choice of his Symphony in C for the second half was eminently suitable, not least because it echoed the celebratory flourishes of the two earlier works. There was certainly plenty of fizz and sparkle in Marriner’s handling of the score, with the delicately repeated pizzicati in the first movement sounding very much like the popping of champagne corks. Not the least of the instrumental delights in this opening Allegro vivo was the fruity Gallic sound he drew from his quartet of horns. The slow movement has an important solo for the oboe, here well taken by Timothy Rundle, rustling in the air with a hint of Eastern mysticism. In the third movement I cannot recall being reminded so forcefully of the drone of the bagpipes, with violas and cellos creating a rustic charm in the second subject, before the exuberant return of the initial statement in the upper strings.

Inevitably, there had to be an element of audience participation with a “Happy Birthday” tribute to the birthday boy and the concert closed with Percy Grainger’s arrangement of the Londonderry Air, sounding very much like Vaughan Williams.

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