13 Sep 2020

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Echoes of Forster seem apt at the present time, when we have experienced six months of disconnection and isolation, and the threat of dystopia, sometimes seemingly willed by our political ‘leaders’; and have envisaged the collapse of an arts industry that has communion between performer and listeners/observers at its beating heart. The epigraph - “Only connect!” - to Howard’s End, a novel which celebrates connection between human individuals and the value of personal relationships but also recognises the devaluing consequence of ubiquity (as Margaret Schlegel says, “The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them.”), seems to sum up both the enormous potential and the limitations of the digital world in which we’ve been living since lockdown.

The ASMF’s first concert, re:connect - A Requiem for our Time, was my first live performance in a ‘real’ venue since I saw ENO’s new production of Figaro on 14th March . The concert remembered those who have experienced suffering and loss caused by Covid-19, and more particularly honoured the memory of Martin Loveday, a former cellist with the Academy who died from coronavirus in April 2020.

I’d almost forgotten what it is like to watch musicians gathering in a performance space; to perch on the edge of one’s seat, eager for music to flow into the air one breathes; to watch the baton go down, or the leader’s nod trigger the opening of a performance. Streamed performances have indeed kept us ‘connected’ to some degree, with performers, ensembles, and - via social media - with each other, but there’s nothing that can replace the visceral buzz of music rippling through air, space and body.

Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten opened the concert. Immediately it was evident how challenging socially distanced performances are: the ASMF musicians were dispersed across the chancel - as a string player I felt for those viola players perched in the hinterland - and director/leader Tomo Keller worked incredibly hard to garner a striving pulse and forward momentum, though I felt that a rather too slow initial tempo, and tentative opening, hindered his energetic efforts. The single chime which opens the work was perhaps too ethereal and whispered, but the players worked hard to grade the incremental crescendo. Again, social distancing, and the consequent reduced number of musicians, inhibited the players’ striving for deepening, ever-enriching sound, but there was still a strong sense of a search for a moral and philosophical centre.

The long silence after the music had dissipated spoke even more powerfully. I’m not sure that the arrangement of Ivor Gurney’s song, ‘Sleep’, for baritone and strings was either necessary or effective, however beautifully, as always, Roderick Williams sang. The tempo was languorous which pushed Williams to sustain the earnestness and intensity through expansive lines - which, of course, he did, consummately - but the lower register of the transposition deprived us of that tenor ‘ache’, and the strings’ oscillating felt a little laboured at times. But, the spirit was sincere and perhaps the musicians needed to express themselves through these means. Certainly, their music-making prompted challenging reflections.

There followed a rather unusual performance of Fauré’s Requiem. It was delicate, sincere and at times gently exquisite. But, it’s very difficult to effect a balance between a ‘chorus’ of just eight singers, with a wonderful choral solo soprano (whose name I don’t know and so can’t share), and a weighty, dark-toned lower strings-plus-two horns ensemble, à la Rutter. In the event, the singers sounded like distant angels. At times, the ‘distance’ was deeply moving; in the Introït et Kyrie, the sound seemed to shimmer from the walls of St Martin on the Field, an ethereal angelic host. Elsewhere, the ‘chorus’ failed to match the driving intensity of the low strings and horns: in the Offertoire the vocal layerings, counterpoint and harmonic developments lacked the necessary weight to drive the music forwards. Williams’ solo was exemplary in terms of responsiveness to his fellow performers: repeated notes were nuanced with light and shade, and repetitions were given poetic shapeliness.

It feels ‘mean’ to offer ‘critical’ judgements, and I must reiterate that I was overwhelmingly pleased just to be listening to live music. But, one ‘problem’ was that conductor Andrew Earis seemed to settle into a tempo-rut: slightly too slow and sludgy. In the ‘Sanctus’, which brought Keller back for what is a challenging solo - and which was beautifully played but a little lost amid the various, dispersed contributing forces - the expansiveness which is required to propel the music forward never quite seemed to garner itself. The ‘Pie Jesu’ was similarly dilatory, though Carolyn Sampson’s controlled phrasing and the subtle vibrato introduced at the close were telling - and the gentle swells of the strings had touching expressive stature.

There was, however, sometimes a lack of energy and impetus. In the ‘Agnus Dei’ the violas seemed to want to break free, the double bass’s pizzicato injected a frisson which was never quite released, and the chorus struggled to match the intensity of the horns. Williams’ solo at the start of the ‘Libera me’ was sombre and firmly telling; but, again, the tempo felt a tad too lazy - a brisker step might have helped the female chorus to balance and match. The choral soprano solo in ‘In Paradisum’ bore us heavenwards, however: rock steady intonation, with expressive phrasing and harp colourings, brought us to a satisfying conclusion of emotional intensity.

It’s a challenge - I offer an admission and apology - for reviewers to balance gratitude for the fact there is live music for them to enjoy, and the personal fulfilment and enrichment that such performances bring, with the ‘need’ to offer critical judgements of performances presented in extraordinarily challenging circumstances. I hope the ASMF musicians will allow me to balance some critical evaluations with heartfelt thanks that I was able to hear them play at all. I left St Martin in the Fields with a light in my heart that hasn’t been shining for many months.

The concert will be streamed online from 7.30pm on Thursday 17 th September and will be available for 30 days from the initial broadcast. Information about future concerts can be found here .

Claire Seymour

Requiem For Our Time: Roderick Williams (baritone), Carolyn Sampson (soprano), The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, St Martin’s Voices, Andrew Earis (conductor)

Pärt - Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten; Gurney - ‘Sleep’; Fauré - Requiem (arr. Rutter)

St Martin in the Fields; Saturday 12th September 2020.