Gramophone honoured Sir Neville Marriner, who died today aged 92, at its 2014 Awards with an Outstanding Achievement Award. For the occasion, the renowned pianist Murray Perahia saluted his distinguished colleague concentrated way and he creates a sound that’s alert and vibrant and has a real vitality to it.
Neville and I have worked together a lot down the years. We recorded the two Mendelssohn concertos for CBS – I hate to think what year that was, probably the mid-1970s! We worked together often when he was with the Minnesota Orchestra – we did the Schumann Concerto and the Beethoven concertos – and then in London with the Academy we did all the Beethoven concertos for video. As a concerto partner he’s a wonderful support and very experienced, so when he’s working with a young player he can also tell them if things will work or if they won’t.
I think because he started the Academy actually playing as Leader, the musicians can empathise with him, and they don’t feel he’s leagues above them: he’s one of them. When I work with the Academy without Neville, I can sense his imprint on the ensemble. The ‘relaxed, disciplined’ approach that he has cultivated is always there; you don’t feel it’s a machine, you don’t feel it’s anything artificial. There’s a kind of relaxed atmosphere – fun but at the same time disciplined – and that’s something I very much appreciate.
He has always done his homework but is also open to other ideas. He is very accommodating and you always feel very comfortable with him there. Neville is very cooperative and friendly – he has a great sense of humour which makes the rehearsals very enjoyable and he creates a wonderful atmosphere. What’s extraordinary about Neville is how he gets his unique sound – the ‘Academy sound’, perhaps. I don’t how he does it, it’s some sort of magic, and he gets them all to play to the best of their abilities. There’s no dictatorial business about it, it’s very natural music-making in a very
Neville knows what’s good on record. He understands what works, so to speak. So sometimes that means pushing the tempi a little bit because he knows that will sound more vibrant on a recording, whereas it might sound rushed in a concert.
He brings out the instruments that need more attention – say a bassoon solo – by changing the dynamic, and on a recording it works, whereas in a concert it might not. If I had to single out one thing about Neville, it would be his sense of humour – it just makes working with him so enjoyable!
James Jolly reflects on some of the highlights of Marriner's vast discography
Sir Neville Marriner’s natural habitat for the past half-century has been the recording studio. With the Academy of St Martin in the Fields he has made hundreds of recordings of a breadth of repertoire that few other conductors (even the equally eclectic Herbert von Karajan) achieved. He engaged early on with Italian music of the 18th century with a style and panache that opened many people’s ears to this staggeringly rich seam at a time when it was little known. His performances of music of the Classical period – symphonies and concertos by Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries – were characterised by the vitality and energy of which Murray Perahia speaks. From this period, his survey of the complete Mozart piano concertos with Alfred Brendel remains a cherishable and musically varied memento.
Decca has mined the Argo catalogue – recordings generally made from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s – and produced a superb survey of Marriner’s work with the Academy during this important period. Gathered on 28 CDs, these Argo years also reveal the ASMF/Marriner way with music of the 20th century – splendid accounts of string works by Schoenberg (Verklärte Nacht), Richard Strauss (Metamorphosen) and Stravinsky (Apollon musagète) plus serenades by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák and (charm bursting from every bar) Dag Wirén. Marriner came late to opera – at least as a conductor – and when he did, he brought the same style and vitality to these dramatic creations as he did to orchestral repertoire; it’s no surprise that one of the world’s great concerto partners should also be a master ‘in the pit’. His debut operatic recording – Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia – sparkles from start to finish and conjures up the atmosphere of the theatre remarkably, given the relative sterility of the recording studio. Not surprisingly, La Cenerentola and Il turco in Italia followed – to comparable acclaim. When a young musician was deemed ready to make his or her first concerto disc, it was often to Marriner and the Academy that the record companies turned: he could be guaranteed to shepherd a stylish performance on to tape, and while maintaining a firm hand he would allow his soloist the leeway to convey his or her musical thoughts in the performance. One such young player was Joshua Bell whose debut disc for Decca in 1988 featured those two inseparables, the violin concertos by Bruch and Mendelssohn, and who, all these years later, has taken up the mantle of the ASMF as its current Music Director. Marriner has maintained a busy career as a guest conductor and has led orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic: Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (1969-78) and the Minnesota Orchestra (1979-86), and Principal Conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (1986-89). He recorded with all three ensembles, the stand-out disc being, perhaps, a Respighi collection he made in LA.