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Recently, I watched another DVD in the ICA Classics
series. It was a group of performances by the
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by
Sir Neville Marriner, and was released during 2012.
Three programs were featured on this 85-minute disc,
the first of which was a concert recorded by the BBC
at St. John’s, Smith Square during May 1974. Both
of the works played were those of George Frideric
Handel: “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from
his oratorio, “Solomon,” and his “Concerto Grosso
in A Major, Op. 6, No. 11.” Marriner (1924 – )
conducted from the leader’s chair for both pieces,
a practice he decreased by the mid 1970’s,
after which he increased his use of a baton at the
podium. It was interesting to see fellow
conductor/harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood (1941 – )
seated at the harpsichord for these performances,
as he had recently established his own
period-instrument ensemble, the Academy of Ancient Music.

The next session on this disc was recorded a year later,
at the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall. A slightly larger
string contingent was used for Marriner’s own arrangement
of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Große Fuge in B Flat Major,
Op. 133,” which was originally composed for string
quartet and was one of the composer’s last works.
Here, Marriner conducted from the podium, and his
beat was clear and incisive. The ensemble provided him
with a wonderful performance, although there was a
false entry from one of the basses at the very beginning.
The arrangement worked well.

The last taped concert on this disc was an August 1983
concert, which was also from the BBC Proms. Here,
the orchestra featured an even larger string section,
and performed Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s
“Symphony No. 4,” known as the “Italian,” as well as
Benjamin Britten’s youthful setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s
poems, “Les Illuminations,” featuring tenor
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (1940-2010). Johnson was a
student of Britten’s longtime companion and muse,
Peter Pears, and he sang these French poems with an
impressive, full-blooded fervor. Marriner’s orchestra
shone during the “Italian” piece, and also provided
excellent support during “Les Illuminations.”

Prior to his founding of the Academy of
St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1959, Sir Neville Marriner was
the principal second violinist of the London Symphony
Orchestra. Originally, the Academy was a small
ensemble consisting largely of his colleagues from
the principal chairs of various top London orchestras,
who performed without a conductor. Marriner’s
brainchild was instrumental in sparking a performance
revival of Early Music pieces, and he would remain its
conductor until 1992, dividing his time between this
orchestra and the directorship of the Minnesota Orchestra.

This DVD is particularly valuable, as it shows the
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields directed by
Marriner, both as a violinist and on the podium, with
various configurations of players. Over the years, it
would become the world’s most recorded chamber
orchestra, raising the standard for chamber
orchestral playing.

Although these performances are still generally
outstanding by today’s standards, they now have
serious competition, from a technical standpoint.
This disc was recorded in enhanced mono and
provided an important time capsule of this
pioneering ensemble and its founder.
I highly recommend it.

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