St Martin’s concert errs on side of perfection

Amelia Perron

The Oct. 28 performance of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble was, in almost every respect, perfect. But one had to wonder what more visibly emotional players would have done with the brilliance this group possesses.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was created in 1959 for the purpose of performing without a conductor. Their original repertoire of baroque music was quickly expanded to include a wider variety of composers. Their present goal is to perform works for larger chamber groups – octets, sextets, etc. – with a group of musicians accustomed to performing with each other, rather than the usual quartet with added guests. They are a widely recorded group, and tour far from their native London.
It is obvious that the group has been playing together for years. They have the sort of ensemble playing that goes far beyond merely matching tempi. From the very start of the program, the musicians were perfectly united in their musical ideas. When a musician plays a phrase of music, one mind attempts to convey a sentiment. When eight musicians play a phrase, eight minds are at work. In this ensemble, however, eight minds were united behind one musical thought, and the clarity of the phrasing was exquisite.
The ensemble spent some time over the years perfecting their blend as well. Whenever a solo passage appeared over texture in the other voices, the balance never missed. The solo came through perfectly, with exactly as much support as the accompaniment needed to give.The best of the brilliant musicality, tone, and ensemble came during the quieter passages. The violinists, in particular, shared a remarkably sweet sound. It was the soft places where they really let their instruments glimmer, all the while being supported by beautiful sound from the lower strings.
The program was one of the more traditional ones seen by Lawrence audiences. The Shostakovich octet is hardly news anymore, and that was the newest work played. To be sure, it was fabulous to hear pieces from the chamber music canon – a Brahms sextet and the Mendelssohn octet – but the group was traditional in too many other ways. Their Mendelssohn was as exciting and musically satisfying as one could ask, but that was the last piece on the program, and it took the entire program to reach that level of emotion. They opened with Brahms, which, although exquisitely played, lacked the sort of passion that one seeks in a Romantic composer. The Shostakovich was similar; the second movement was brilliantly clear. The viola solo was gorgeous and perfectly blended, and the violin in the high register was exactly what every violinist at this school would kill to sound like. Shostakovich wrote the octet when he was a teenager; the first violinist joked about the inappropriateness of having their rather mature group playing it. In jest or no, he may have been right: the opening of the Shostakovich just isn’t right without an excess of na‹ve sorrow that St. Martin didn’t quite deliver.
To their credit, though, it may have been a completely different experience in a hall suited to chamber music, or even in the front of the chapel. Chamber music is, after all, for chambers, which the Chapel certainly is not. And the emotional dissatisfaction of one audience member can’t diminish the brilliance of a near-perfect performance.