Arts: Raising the roof for an unsung maestro

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The Independent Culture
SEVENTY-FIVE this week and still looking remarkably young, Sir Neville Marriner is in serious danger of being taken for granted. And yet who, among the current roster of London-based maestros, has done more for British musical life? Quite apart from founding and conducting the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (which is itself 40 this year), Marriner has proved highly adept in a wide range of repertory, from Bach and Handel to Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. But it is a sad fact of musical life that consistent standards tend, after a while, not to be noticed, and Marriner has, in a sense, become the victim of those very qualities - technical excellence, reliability and interpretative honesty - that established his reputation in the first place.

On Wednesday night, the combined talents of the Academy and the Academy Chorus were paraded in full for Sir Neville's 75th Birthday Gala Concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme opened to an immaculate account of Mozart's Haffner Symphony where watertight ensemble, vividly tapered phrasing and a keen sense of style made for a particularly happy performance. Here was an expert band of players responding unanimously to their conductor's every calculated gesture, and the sum effect was typical of Marriner's best work.

Bouts of coughing rather spoiled parts of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, especially at the phrase "O soothest Sleep!" in Sonnet, which tenor John Mark Ainsley sung with rapturous tone, and then again in Timothy Brown's off-stage horn postlude. Marriner led a well-focused reading, jabbing at the emphatic string figurations in Nocturne.

Mendelssohn's mercurial incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream could as well have been written for the Academy, whose chipper account of the score - or most of it - made for a delightful second half. The main body of the Overture was pure thistledown, though a few elves and fairies fell out-of-sync among the violins. Marriner's woodwinds coped bravely in the Scherzo and soprano Philippa Healey invested "You spotted snakes with double tongue" with plenty of character. The Intermezzo - perhaps the most dramatic movement - was driven very fast, with lightning exchanges between violins and woodwinds, and the Nocturne was beautifully played by the horns. Marriner defied convention in the Wedding March by swapping the majestic ending for a quieter alternative, which made for a convenient segue to the magical finale.

The song-like slow movement of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony appeared as a brief encore. Thereafter, it was all over save for a full-orchestral "Happy Birthday", the birthday cake (wheeled in on a music stand) and the candles - which the sprightly septuagenarian extinguished without ceremony or effort.

Rob Cowan