Sir Neville Marriner CH, CBE, Founder and Life President of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has died

Sir Neville Marriner (1924-2016)

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields is deeply saddened to announce the death of Sir Neville Marriner, Founder and Life President of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Sir Neville Marriner passed away peacefully in the night on 2 October.

Born on 15 April 1924 in Lincoln, Sir Neville Marriner studied at the Royal College of Music and the Paris Conservatoire. He began his career as a violinist, playing first in a string quartet and trio, then in the London Symphony Orchestra. It was during this period that he founded the Academy, with the aim of forming a top-class chamber ensemble from London’s finest players. Beginning as a group of friends who gathered to rehearse in Sir Neville’s front room, the Academy gave its first performance in its namesake church in 1959. The Academy now enjoys one of the largest discographies of any chamber orchestra worldwide, and its partnership with Sir Neville Marriner is the most recorded of any orchestra and conductor.

Honoured three times for his services to music in this country – most recently being made a Companion of Honour by Her Majesty The Queen in June 2015 – Sir Neville Marriner has also been awarded honours in France, Germany and Sweden.

As a player, Sir Neville Marriner had observed some of the greatest conductors at close quarters. He worked as an extra under Toscanini and Furtwängler, with Joseph Krips, George Szell, Stokowski and mentor Pierre Monteux. Sir Neville began his conducting career in 1969, after his studies in America with Maestro Monteux. There he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, at the same time as developing and extending the size and repertoire of the Academy. In 1979 he became Music Director and Principal Conductor of both the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Südwest Deutsche Radio Orchestra in Stuttgart, positions he held until the late 1980s. Subsequently he has continued to work with orchestras round the globe in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Milan, Athens, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Tokyo. In 2011 Sir Neville was appointed Honorary Conductor of the newly formed I, Culture Orchestra which brings together the most talented young musicians from Eastern Europe. Sir Neville was Music Director of the Academy from its formation in1958 to 2011 when he became Life President and handed the baton of Music Director to violinist Joshua Bell.

Chairman of the Academy, Paul Aylieff said: ‘We are greatly saddened by today’s news. Sir Neville’s artistic and recording legacy, not only with the Academy but with orchestras and audiences worldwide is immense. He will be greatly missed by all who knew and worked with him and the Academy will ensure it continues to be an excellent and fitting testament to Sir Neville.’

The Marriner family are very touched by all the messages of sympathy from people reminding them how much fun it was to be with Neville.

An appreciation of his contributions and recording by Seen and Heard Internaitonal’s Geoffrey Newman: When great performers reach their nineties, 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. It became easy to take the Academy, a household name, for granted and, even by the 1970s, 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 a quick move 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), and 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 were 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 the strength and transparency of his smaller orchestra. His venture 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 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 twentieth-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! (Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.)

Seen and Heard International’s Dr Mark Berry has written the following about Sir Neville Marriner: ‘Although I knew his work from countless recordings, I only heard Neville Marriner conduct once, in a concert held at the Royal Festival Hall more than two years ago, to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. In Mozart and Elgar, with his beloved Academy of St Martin in the Fields, time had not stood still, but rather had brought great joy and wisdom. I was also delighted to write the English-language programme note for a concert he conducted as recently as the end of August, this year, at the Salzburg Festival. His abiding civilisation, thoughtfulness, musicality, and sheer good character, always lightly worn, unmistakeable to those with ears to hear, will remain with us longer still.’

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