When a great performer reaches their 90’s, one knows that things cannot go on forever.  But when the end finally comes, it is often interesting to note the reevaluations that one makes of a formidable and enterprising musical life. For many of us early on, Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields was the prolific performing and recording force that knew no bounds, set estimable standards, and managed to achieve success in virtually any repertoire.  Becoming a household name, it became easy to take the Academy for granted and, even by the 1970’s, some critics began to think that the ensemble’s performances had become a little too expert and polished for their own good. Yet the consistency in performance and recording was disarming and, while one seldom received earth-shaking interpretations from Sir Neville, one always got musicality, balance, and judgement – and a refreshing degree of innovation in repertoire and style. The level of technical execution was enviable.  

In retrospect, Sir Neville’s original objective to set up a small, conductor-less ‘egalitarian’ orchestra in 1958, flexibly bridging chamber music and the orchestral, turned out to be an a path-breaking template for small orchestral design and flexibility. While Marriner eventually took on formal conducting duties (armed with the lessons from his mentor, Pierre Monteux), it was his interest in historical practice (originally guided by Thurston Dart) and in the exact ‘scale’ of performance that made the Academy’s results distinctive. Combined with the outstanding quality of its instrumentalists, the Academy surfaced as a vibrant force, pushing beyond the very fine Boyd Neel Orchestra of earlier years and other post-war competitors in the Baroque repertoire, such as the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, I Musici, and Karl Haas’ London Baroque Orchestra.  Haas’ orchestra also assembled some of London’s finest musicians in the previous decade, but was in decline when the Academy started. While orchestras are typically prone to their ups-and-downs, somehow this did not hold true for the Academy. Marriner’s sterling consistency in performance likely followed from his ability to achieve a strong and enduring social ambience within the orchestra: he got his players to fully share in the responsibility for synergy, balance and sound, while allowing each their own individuality. The eventual creation of the Academy’s Chamber Music Ensemble was also an innovative dimension of the orchestra’s flexibility, and what a series of recorded gems that group produced later on for Philips.

The fruits of this impressive ‘model’ can be easily gleaned from Sir Neville’s appointment with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1969: that ensemble very quickly had all the same synergies and executional consistency as the Academy. When Iona Brown took over the orchestra in the late 1970s, its instincts and training remained absolutely intact, and it even extended existing virtues. To be able to instill and sustain this balance of quality and musicality within an orchestra that could ultimately vary from 15 to 50 players was remarkably educational for everyone watching.  While not playing down the immense success of the English Chamber Orchestra, I am sure that they learned from Sir Neville’s experiments too. And how quickly the ensemble progressed: within a decade, the Academy had moved from Handel and Bach to Bizet, Bartok, Stravinsky and the modern English composers, fleshing out with Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in between.

Given the concern with authenticity these days, one is tempted to play down Marriner’s Baroque performances on the grounds that they use modern strings. But do we want to forget all the fresh excitement that was felt when the Complete Bach Orchestral Suites were first issued on Argo, or for that matter, the Handel Concerti Grossi, Op. 3 and 6?  Here was genuine music making, beautifully sculpted, sensitive and aware, and possessing a buoyancy of spirit. There was a great deal of historical research involved as well, as there was in the various incarnations of the Brandenburg Concertos. We do not want to forget the explorations in the English Baroque: Avison, Boyce, Arne, and others. And what about violinist Alan Loveday’s enchanting Four Seasons with the ensemble, which got the more theatric interpretations moving. Just how inauthentic were the very fine 1973 performances of the Vivaldi Concertos, Op. 3 and Op. 4? In Op. 4, the performing edition was by Christopher Hogwood, Alan Loveday’s and Carmel Kaine’s violins dated from 1723 and 1760 respectively, Kenneth Heath’s violoncello was from 1723, and theorbos were used throughout.  From a perspective of pure historical research, it is simply not possible to divorce Marriner’s efforts from those of the early days of the Academy of Ancient Music, though he was as unconvinced by gut strings as much as Hogwood thought they were essential.

While the grand interpretations of Beethoven were then etched in our minds by Klemperer and other great maestros, how daring for the Academy to undertake ‘small orchestra’ Beethoven. Yet Sir Neville carried this off most ably, perhaps inspired by the same thinking as Sir Charles Mackerras. Again, the strings were not authentic, but the scale was right – and these efforts were a key stepping stone to where we are now.  How often did one try ‘small orchestra’ Rossini overtures? Never, yet the clean insight of the group’s efforts emerged as fully winning. Then there was the historical research on Schubert, pretty well undertaken alone, unearthing the 7th Symphony and the unfinished 10th, in Brian Newbould's completions. Again, Sir Neville and the Academy’s scale is perfect and the freshness and buoyancy of these readings have stood the test of time; the great 8th and 9th do not appear to need a larger orchestra.

The expansion of the Academy orchestra to a greater number of players, and quickly moving to later composers, certainly provided excitement, since no one quite knew what the results would be. Nonetheless, the early Argo release of Bizet’s Symphony in C and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was an instant hit, and one recalls fondly the recordings of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Apollon Musagete, and Capriccio (with John Ogden) from around the same time.  Not to let the chamber music roots of the ensemble be forgotten, there was also the famous Mendelssohn Octet, the Scherzo from which became one of the Academy’s calling cards. Marriner even ventured as far as one very successful Argo album of ‘Americana’, and his Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was beautifully articulated.

The Academy’s entry into Mozart and Haydn left less of an original mark, likely because the market was far more crowded. In many ways, the great interpreters (Beecham, Walter, Klemperer and Szell) still owned these composers at the time the Academy started, and distinguished smaller orchestras had already been formed to specialize in these areas. Harry Blech’s London Mozart Players and Harry Newstone’s Haydn Orchestra both emerged around 1950, and the former lacked nothing in buoyant spirit while the latter’s performances were both intelligent and historically aware. (Marriner had previously played violin in the former.) There was therefore less to add. Yet there were still attempts at innovation: for example, the collaboration with harpsichordist Igor Kipnis in the Mozart Piano Concertos. And no one can forget the Academy’s massive projects to record the complete Mozart Symphonies and Piano Concertos (with Alfred Brendel) for Philips.  For that era, these were truly landmark efforts, seldom attempted, and even if the conductor could sometimes seem a little too comfortable in his approach, the results were very clean and conscientious, and satisfying overall. (Some might think that he found a little more fiber in the few Mozart symphonies up to No. 29 that he attempted earlier for Argo.)

There were other clear highlights over two decades: a great quantity of ‘lighter’ Mozart was beautifully set down, the early choral works had precision and freshness, the Wind Concertos (featuring the likes of Jack Brymer, Alan Civil and others) and Serenade K. 361 were uniformly delightful, and the strongly-cast late Mozart operas were fresh and telling. The large assortment of Haydn Symphonies that Marriner recorded for Philips were also performances of integrity and appealing buoyancy (not as sharply etched as Dorati but better played) yet his Creation was finer still.

Marriner offered an equally interesting contribution to the modern English repertoire.  His approach to the smaller pieces of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius was more soft-grained and ‘beautiful’ than some of his compatriots, but so exquisitely turned. I have always thought his early Tallis Fantasia, Lark Ascending, and his reading of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were of the highest order and really showed up the strength and transparency of his smaller orchestra. His ventures into Butterworth and some of Walton’s less familiar string pieces were equally enchanting. Of course, Marriner was always on the lookout for tasty miniatures and other shorter string pieces and, in this regard, he felt as much at home in visiting the French repertoire as that of Scandinavia.

The 1980s saw Sir Neville moving into a new phase, as a conductor of bigger orchestras, trying out a scale of performance that he presumably always wanted to sample. These involved successful associations with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, performing and recording more romantic repertoire (Dvorak, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and much else). There were also many distinguished concerto recordings. Most of these recordings were admirable (and some of the concerto performances superb) but I am probably not alone in thinking that the freshness and zeal of Sir Neville’s conducting was best captured with his original ‘family’. The Academy started at a particular time in history when there were many new things to explore, and the sense of discovery was always there. Later on, there were simply fewer things to push forward. The Academy was also blessed with a very fertile recording industry in the 1960s and 70s, and it remains a fact that the sheer sound quality of the Academy’s Argo and Philips releases were not fully duplicated by ASV, EMI, and other companies later on, especially in areas that the Academy re-recorded their standard repertoire. Sir Neville remained the Music Director of the Academy until 2011, succeeded by Joshua Bell, and continued to hold the title of Life President until his death. He also continued to conduct and, just two years ago (at age 90), became the oldest conductor to appear at the Proms.

For me, Sir Neville’s work with the Academy constitutes one of the true monuments of postwar 20th century music. While there have always been fine chamber orchestras and directors, Sir Neville and the Academy provided a sterling template for small orchestra design, flexibility in repertoire, and sheer technical excellence.  They showed emphatically that so many works can be played successfully with less numbers than traditionally, and used the orchestra as a flexible music-making resource rather than a fixed entity. This has been instructive for all ‘small orchestra’ performance since. With hundreds and hundreds of their original recordings still available, I find it interesting that I cannot think of one that shouldn’t have been made: Sir Neville and the Academy’s recording contribution easily stands alongside Karajan’s with the Berlin Philharmonic in the same period. I am very saddened by Sir Neville’s passing, but we can all be comforted by the fact that the Academy and its historical resonance live on!


© Geoffrey Newman 2016  

Note: Vancouver audiences might feel somewhat removed from the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, since the ensemble has appeared here relatively infrequently, even though travelers may have visited the actual church of that name, which adjoins Trafalgar Square in central London.  However, there is a very important link that one should recall: two members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra were originally founding members of the Academy of St, Martin’s in the Fields. Violinist Norman Nelson came from the Academy to become the VSO’s Concertmaster in 1965, as did violist Simon Streatfield in the same year.  Streatfield served as Principal Viola, Assistant Conductor, Acting Music Director, and Associate Conductor of the VSO from 1965 to 1977, and conductor of the Vancouver Bach Choir from 1969 to 1981.