Sir Neville Marriner: Ninety-Two Years Young

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bizet: Till Fellner (piano), Academy of St Martin in the Fields,/Sir Neville Marriner (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 15.4.2016. (AS)

Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D, K385, Haffner; Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat, K482

Bizet: Symphony in C

This was a concert to celebrate Sir Neville Marriner’s ninety-second birthday. Conductors are renowned for longevity in pursuit of their art, and in Sir Neville’s case it is remarkable that he makes no concession to his age. He stood for the whole of the programme, conducted Mozart’s Haffner Symphony from memory (though he had a score to hand just in case), and even when he directed the remaining two works with occasional reference to their scores, he did so without the use of spectacles. His control of the orchestra was obviously very strong, and his baton technique as clear and precise as ever it was. Quite naturally the ASMF players responded to their founder’s direction with alert, superlative playing, particularly in the woodwind section, where the unscheduled but welcome presence of Sir Neville’s son, Andrew, was noted amongst the clarinets.

Sir Neville is one of those conductors who puts the music before any personal ego. You never feel that it is Marriner’s Mozart, for instance – he is simply a servant of the music. That is not to suggest that his performances are dull and featureless: far from it, as we heard on this occasion. The Haffner Symphony’s opening movement was strongly projected at a slightly slow tempo, serious in mood, but tough rhythmically. A beautifully shaped Andante provided an effective contrast, and the final two faster movements had plenty of energy, aristocratic style and good touches of humour.

Against a backcloth of firm orchestral support Till Fellner produced finely tuned classical playing in the piano concerto’s opening movement, which gave pleasure at a certain level. But perhaps lacking was a sense of a strong personality at the helm. His music making could have shown a little more individuality without breaking stylistic bounds. In the Andante Fellner’s immaculate, beautiful playing rather missed the music’s sense of emotional unease below the notes. And though the opening of the last movement had plenty of jaunty life, not enough was made of the more expressive andantino sequence, which Mozart unusually introduces in the middle of the otherwise conventional rondo finale.

The most purely enjoyable performance of the evening came in the Bizet Symphony. It was refreshing to hear the first movement taken at pretty lively tempo, which brought out the music’s youthful high spirits to admirable effect. In the Andante one expected the ASMF’s principal oboe, named in the progamme as Timothy Rundle, to produce playing of elegance and style in the lovely solo written for his instrument, and he did just that, while Sir Neville found some telling little fluctuations of tempo to enhance the movement’s innocent beauty. We then heard a light, joyous third movement scherzo before, with a slightly wicked smile, the conductor turned to his violin section and asked them to perform the moto perpetuo finale at a challengingly fast tempo. This they – and the whole orchestra – achieved with much skill, delicacy and spirit.

Not surprisingly Marriner was given an ovation, and to round off a very successful evening the orchestra played Happy Birthday for him, he made a neat little speech, praising the orchestra he had founded 58 years previously, and we had an encore in the shape of Grainger’s arrangement of The Londonderry Air.

Many happy returns, Sir Neville!

Alan Sanders


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