There were greener pastures than that of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Perth Concert Hall

February 21 & 22, 2014

Fed up with being told what to do by crabby conductors and looking for a greater degree of democracy, Neville Marriner, then leader of the London Symphony’s second violins, founded ASMF in 1958. Finally leaving the LSO in 1966, his position was filled by David Measham, soon to become a conducting stalwart in Perth throughout the 70’s and 80’s. With Marriner (who turns 90 this year!) the Academy went on to become the best known and most recorded chamber orchestra in the world. He still works with them on occasion, but the orchestra is now under the direction of Joshua Bell, and on this trip it was led by Tamas Andras with Michael Barenboim, son of Daniel as violin soloist.

Its hallmarks have always been scrupulous intonation and ensemble, but sometimes lacking in imagination and flair. Their recordings of romantic works such as the Dvořák Serenades and Grieg’s Holberg Suite for example, exude an air of efficiency but are a bit soulless, while their recordings of baroque composers such as Handel, can sound a bit breathless, lacking the kind of expressive musical rhetoric that we have become used to from the likes of Nicholas Harnoncourt and René Jacobs, so I was interested to hear them in the flesh. Even without Nifty Nev at the helm, the Academy’s hallmarks still pervade, but maybe with less fizz.

Concert 1

Their first concert in the glorious acoustic of the Perth Concert Hall started with Britten’s endlessly imaginative Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Hastily written for The Boyd Neel Orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival in 1937, its variation form was a favourite of Britten’s, and gave him an extraordinary opportunity to show off his versatility as a young composer. The Academy’s performance was indeed efficient and professional, but cold. I didn’t ‘feel’ very much, but it was great to see the physicality of all but the first violins strumming their instruments just like guitars in ‘Aria Italiana’ – a lot of fun. The Funeral March started out passionately, but the tension disappeared too soon, so it didn’t quite fulfil its doom-laden promise.

The 27-year-old violinist Michael Barenboim was soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No 4. Once again, things plodded along without one being aware of much detail or particular refinement. He had sure intonation, but a thin tone and lack of rhythmic drive, which deprived the music of character. The performance reminded me of one of those hack Viennese period costume ensembles that play in Palaces for the tourists, but minus the welcome distraction of colourful cozzies.

Stravinsky’s Concerto in D provided more classical pastiche, especially in the slow movement and was perhaps the most enjoyable work of the night, but even this sounded jetlagged and needed more rhythmic inflection.

Haydn’s Farewell Symphony was written at the end of an unexpectedly protracted residence at Prince Esterhazy’s summer palace. The court musicians missed their wives and had had quite enough. As a none-too-subtle hint to the Prince, in the Finale, Haydn had his musicians leave the stage one by one, leaving only two violins. The Prince got the message, and the court returned home the next day. This performance perked up in the Finale, maybe because like Haydn’s band, the players wanted to go home, or perhaps even to the pub!

Concert 2

The Academy’s second concert started with a warhorse – Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for solo string quartet and string orchestra. Elgar seems to be flavour of the month in Perth at the moment, with another performance of this work given by the ACO only a few days earlier in the same venue, and yet another one by the local WASO in just a couple of weeks. Rather than be a burden, it was a terrific opportunity to compare performance styles. I’d forgotten just how much soaring unison string writing there is in this piece, so that when the orchestra breaks into multi-part harmony, it’s like a rainbow of colour, albeit through a layer of Cotswolds clouds!

Being written in 1905, you can hear the impressionistic influence of Debussy in some of the chord progressions. Where the ACO subtly explored Elgar’s softer dynamics, the Academy’s performance needed a more pliant approach, to make Elgar’s masterpiece a living, breathing entity. The best thing about the group is their lush, organic corporate sound. They also handled the rapid repeated semiquaver passages with greater clarity than their antipodean counterparts. The valedictory coda was especially heartfelt and stirring. Elgar ends the work with a cheeky single pizzicato chord, which brought a smile and titter from the half-full house.

Judith Bingham’s Concerto for Bassoon is perhaps misnamed, as it contains nothing really to stretch the soloist. Graham Sheen possessed a warm full tone, but the music itself, in one continuous movement, veered from the accessible to the naïve, sounding distinctly ‘studenty’ and at times tedious. It brought only polite applause.

A tempo of drawing-room politeness was set for Mozart’s A Major Violin Concerto with the group’s featured soloist, Michael Barenboim. What a name can do! His intonation was less assured on this occasion, and the playing lacked both heroism and humour. A funereal tempo for the slow movement made way for the Turkish-flavoured Rondo, in which tuttis were loud, but there were no discernible gypsy inflections from the soloist.

Some of the best moments of the afternoon came in Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings that followed. The Orchestra created a wonderfully creepy atmosphere at the beginning of the second movement. Other highlights during this work’s unpredictable twists and turns were a convincing realization of Bartók’s insect-like chromatics, and a well-coordinated pizzicato section, especially from the two double-basses.

In Mozart’s Symphony No 29, suddenly it was as if a veil had been lifted, and there in all its glory was the ASMF that we know and love. With a lively tempo for the First Movement, there was much more pointing and style than in the Mozart Concerto. The second movement also enjoyed a swift tempo. With just the right amount of expressive vibrato, there was elegance aplenty to be had. The Minuet danced in a neat one-in-the-bar, and the Finale fizzed along, with thrilling unison violin scales zooming up and down. The audience went out into the Perth sunshine, sated and smiling.

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