MUSIC / Modest party: Stephen Johnson on Sir Neville Marriner's 70th birthday celebration

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The Independent Culture
So many things can go wrong with birthday or 'gala' concerts. You can cram them too full of interesting things and people, or you can just get the tone wrong, as in the recent Kiri Te Kanawa 50th birthday bonanza - parodied by Private Eye as 'Dame Kiri Sings - Any Old Rubbish'. But the 70th Birthday Concert for Sir Neville Marriner was just the right length, contained just the right number of special guest appearances, and in the process turned out to be an unusually enjoyable South Bank orchestral concert.

The programme itself was Classic FM rather than Radio 3 - Zadok the Priest and the Enigma Variations framing a Haydn concerto and popular vocal items by Schubert and Mozart - but it was, on the whole, beautifully done.

There's no accurate way of gauging an audience reaction but, apart from a couple of spectacularly timed coughs in Elgar's 'Nimrod' variation, the music was heard in what seemed like a more than respectful silence, and the standing ovation at the end felt more genuine, less stage-managed than any I can remember in quite a while.

That isn't really surprising. Marriner's contribution to British musical life since he founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, 35 years ago, has been enormous.

There can't be many classical record collections in the country that don't contain something by him. He may have a less starry image than one or two of his more intensively marketed colleagues, but it is hard to think of a musician who appears to be more roundly liked than Marriner.

Back to criticism. It would be wrong to suggest that this was a completely perfect aesthetic experience. The trumpet lines had a momentary disagreement in the 'And all the people' section of Zadok the Priest, though this was otherwise a typically strong, balanced Marriner-Academy reading, aware of period instrument developments but revelling in the richness of its thoroughly modern resources, and in the firm sound of the Academy Chorus.

Sylvia McNair took a while to establish the right relationship with the Festival Hall acoustic in Mozart's 'Ch'io mi scordi di te?', and like McNair, Alfred Brendel sounded more at ease in Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock than in his opening item, Haydn's Piano Concerto in D. But McNair's gorgeous tone and exceptional musicality and Brendel's penetrating intellectual insight meant that what they did was never less than interesting - no routine dullness there.

It was with the second half however that pure enjoyment took over. The Shepherd on the Rock, in which McNair and Brendel were joined by Andrew Marriner, was just magical. Marriner junior makes as lovely a sound as McNair, but the exceptional treat here was to hear a voice and two instruments making music as intimately together as in the best chamber ensembles. However small the scale, it carried beautifully in the spaces of the Festival Hall .

After that, came an Enigma Variations that felt alive at every stage. The Academy string section was smaller than that employed by most modern orchestras, but the depth of tone in the opening of 'Nimrod' would put many of those to shame, as did the intensity and precision of the phrasing.

Throughout, this was a fresh, confident, sensitive performance, and yet there was no question that it was Elgar, and the orchestra's ability to play him, that was celebrated, not the conductor. The seductive egoism of a Bernstein couldn't have been further away.

Concert sponsored by US West International