The Academy of St Martin in the Fields ‘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 P‰rt’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

There followed a rather unusual performance of FaurÈ’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, ‡ la Rutter. In the event, the singers sounded like distant
angels. At times, the ‘distance’ was deeply moving; in the IntroÔt 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


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)

P‰rt – Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten; Gurney –
‘Sleep’; FaurÈ – Requiem (arr. Rutter)

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

product_title=Requiem for our Time: the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Roderick Williams

Photo courtesy of Groves Artists