Royal Festival Hall
Saint-Saëns – Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, op.28
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466
Elgar – Enigma Variations, op.36
Joshua Bell (violin/director)
Murray Perahia (piano)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Sir Neville Marriner (conductor)
Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (the ensemble’s initial hyphens dropped in 1988) have been performing together in public since 1959, though Marriner appeared as violinist on a good few recordings before then. Having founded the ensemble and guided it through a number of transformations – not least, its varying constitution as small ensemble, chamber orchestra, and symphony orchestra – Sir Neville, though no longer the Music Director, still plays an active part in the life of the ASMF as conductor. Often, sadly, that happens more often abroad than here in England; indeed, though I have often heard the orchestra, this was actually the first time I have heard the conductor ‘live’. Two weeks shy of his ninetieth birthday, that was put right with a wonderful celebratory concert, including the present Music Director (only the second in the orchestra’s history), Joshua Bell, and Principal Guest Conductor, Murray Perahia.
Bell acted as soloist and director for his contribution, Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Perhaps surprisingly, it was here that the orchestra was at its smallest (strings: 22.214.171.124.2). It was a stylish performance, benefiting from razor-sharp unanimity and a keen sense of rhythm, without being driven too hard. There was plenty of light and shade, a credit both to the players’ responsiveness and to Bell’s enlightened direction. It was indeed a joy of sorts to hear such immaculate playing from all concerned. There is, of course, only so deep one can go in such a piece, but he ensured that it was not merely an opportunity for virtuoso display.
I had assumed that Perahia would be directing Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto from the piano, so was delighted when Marriner came to the podium to conduct. The string section here was larger, though still on what one might call a chamber scale (10.8. 6.6.3). More important than mere size, however, was the transparency of sound, allied to commendable fullness where need be (more so, I fancied, than on the ASMF recordings with Alfred Brendel). Doubtless Marriner’s detractors would consider this a failing, but I was quite delighted to hear the first movement open as if it were the same orchestra that had played for Amadeus. (The beautifully-illustrated programme had an amusing advertisement for that ‘motion picture’, with pictures of Mozart and Marriner: ‘Only two people were qualified to conduct the score of Milos Forman’s “Amadeus”. One was unavailable.’) The standard of orchestral execution was outstanding: sweet of tone, beguiling indeed, but with not a little demonic fury too. Such things are relative: this was not the Mozart of, say, Barenboim or Furtwängler, but nor was it trying to be. It was, however, a splendid display of fine musicianship from all concerned. Tempi and phrasing went unnoticed in the best sense: this was an excellent example of art concealing art. Perahia perhaps proved a little darker, even on occasion heavier of hand, than one might have expected, but for the most part, his was a fine performance too. The cadenzas – I do not know whose they were: certainly not Beethoven’s – here and in the finale were imaginative and received fine advocacy. The slow movement was poised, rightly, between tragedy and consolation, making one feel both all the more, without a hint of exaggeration. It was beautifully shaped, without sounding ‘shaped’. Perahia offered a considerable degree of ornamentation. Clean lines and characterful woodwind (not least, Christopher Cowie’s oboe) added to an account that was far more than ‘pleasing’. Coughing, alas, extended until the end of Perahia’s opening solo to the finale. Nevertheless, it was expertly played: a very tricky moment indeed to bring off. Then the ASMF truly unleashed Mozart’s D minor daemon, whilst remaining clean, clear, and lithe: this was never going to be a performance of Furtwänglerian mysticism, but it convinced on its own terms. There was just the right degree of tension between minor and major, the coda proving a delightful release.
A larger orchestra again (strings 126.96.36.199.6) convened following the interval for Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I was struck immediately by the cultivated sound of the strings: not for its own sake, but at the service of the score and its subtleties. Fabled virtuosity and transparency were once again apparent, often evoking Mendelssohn, indeed as early as the Theme and certainly in the first variation. This was not ‘weighty’ Elgar, but nor was it ‘light’ in any trivial sense. And there was plenty of depth to the string tone where required, as for instance in the fourth variation, ‘WMB’. Tumultuous passages were taken at quite a lick, yet never sounded merely quick; there was bravado here, but musical bravado. ‘He who dares wins’: and he did. Moreover, there was plenty of what, in traditionally gendered terms, not inappropriate in Elgar’s case, we might call ‘feminine’ contrast. Crucially, there was never so much as a hint of sentimentality. ‘Nimrod’ was deeply felt, yes, but musicianship was all. ‘Dorabella’ brought lightly-worn Mendelssohn and Brahms to the fore, maybe even a hint of Strauss. ‘GRS’ perhaps Liszt – and not only in the use of the triangle. But the composer’s voice remained ever present, whoever his forebears may have been.
This was a distinguished performance, a fitting celebration of a distinguished career. Let us look forward, then, to a similar occasion in ten years’ time. And lest the thought seem absurd – maybe it is, maybe it is not – let us remember Elliott Carter, whom no one would have expected to continue composing into his second century.