Glimpses of the unforgettable Neville Marriner

Glimpses of the unforgettable Neville Marriner


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2016

I am sitting in our favourite Kensington lunch place waiting for Neville when he breezes in, carrying a bulging briefcase that has seen better days. ‘So sorry I’m late,’ says Neville, who isn’t. But he is always courteous and considerate and if he sees me sitting down he assumes he must have been at fault.

‘What’s in the bag, Neville?’ I ask.

‘Oh, a Walton symphony,’ he says.

‘Not really your thing.’

‘Never done it before. Was studying it on the Eurostar this morning.’

‘Neville,’ I exclaim, ‘You’re 90 years old… what are you doing learning new pieces?’

‘Oh, a friend is starting a new orchestra and desperately needed someone to conduct it. I couldn’t really say no.’

That was Neville through and through, the man who would never let a friend down, who took every work of music on its merits and remained ever curious as to what a new score might contain.

Once we got talking, the food could wait. He might remember trying to get Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to follow his beat, or how he joined the Philharmonia intifada against Herbert von Karajan, or something that Alfed Brendel had just showed him in a Mozart manuscript. He was an irrepressible fount of memory but, unlike so many others, he was both modest in his own part in the story and deeply interested in the person he was talking to – me, in this instance.

I once asked him how he suffered the war wound that landed him in a hospital bed next to Thurston Dart, the mathematician who first showed Neville the possibilities of period pitch and tempo. We were sitting in his Kensington flat. It was a summer evening and there was an empty bottle of red wine on the coffee table between us. I said very little and let Neville talk.

Soon, we were in pitch darkness. I looked around to find a light switch and saw Molly, his wife, hovering at the door, signalling me not to move. Neville had been part of an advance party that recce’d the Normandy beaches a few days before D-Day and was lucky to get out alive. Molly had never heard the story before. Neville was too modest to let on. (In some versions of his life he said he was invalided out by a kidney ailment; the ailment was sharpnel and he spent months in hospital.)

He loved orchestras, couldn’t get enough of their gossip and intrigues while always respecting the players’ craft and commitment and never indulging in malice. Those who fell out with him – Christopher Hogwood, for instance – found themselves embraced in reconciliation. So many musicians, down in the dumps, were picked up and set on their feet again by the ever-patient Neville. I can’t believe he is gone.

The last time I saw him, he was working around the corner at Abbey Road and I decided to drop in and surprise him. His face lit up at the sight of me and he made me promise to stay ‘for a bite of lunch’.

It was a commercial session with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, paid for by the soloist. After a couple of decent takes, good enough for a commercial job, Neville tapped his baton on the stand and said, ‘I think we can do better than that, don’t you?’

Backs straightened in the orchestra, pages were turned back in the score.The next take was a manifold improvement. That was Neville: ‘I think we can do better than that.’

May his dear soul find eternal rest.



  • Maria says:

    He died with his boots on. He was preparing to go on tour with the ASMF and pianist Kit Armstrong performing Mozart piano concerto KV 482 — rehearsal scheduled for Saturday and the tour was to begin in Cologne on Sunday.

    • Pedro says:

      Sorry to hear the very sad news. I have tickets for the October 10 concert in Brussels.

      I remerber very well the first time I have heard him live. It was around 45 years ago in a wonderful performance of Peter and the Wolf.

  • WC Yu says:

    i first got to know of Sir Neville through a recording of Handel’s Messiah. It was the 250th anniversary performance taken from Point Theatre in Dublin. It was my first encounter with this great masterpiece.

    I was a student studying in a foreign land. That piece appealed to me and i ilstened to it for countless hours. Kept me company during those hours in the room studying.

    There have been many other recordings over the years from Paul McCreesh to John Butt. For me, my introduction to Messiah will always be Sir Neville’s. Since then I have discovered many more of his recordings but for me, this holds a special place. Thank you for the music.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    I vividly remember a concert by ASMIF in the mud 1970s in the northern Dutch town of Groningen. Neville walked in as if he was a regular guy in the audience, then disappeared through a stage side door, to emerge later with his fellow musicians for a concert of which Bartok’s Divertimento crowned an evening that it etched in memory. I imagine Neville’s arrival in heaven in the manner of Otto Boehler – with many great friends embracing him. Thank you for so generously and selflessly sharing you gifts, Sir Neville. We are fuller human beings through them.

  • Branimir Pofuk says:

    Back in 2011, here in Zagreb, where he conducted the Zagreb Phil. Orchestra several times, he was talking to me about his early days when playing in the 2nd violins section of the LSO:
    “We enjoyed to tease conductors and make fun of them. Poor Georg Solti, poor Antal Dorati, what we were doing to them! Only two of them were spared of our pranks: Monteaux, because he was so old, and Karajan, because his face was showing clearly total lack of any sense of humor.”
    He also told me about the wildest devilry of those days when he bombed the bus with the LSO coming home from tour with bags of flour from a plane piloted by his friend, violinist and war veteran pilot Peter Gibbs.
    “Today I would go to jail for that”, said Sir Neville, laughing over a glass of vine.

    What a great man! We will remember him with warm hearts and smiling faces.

    • Branimir Pofuk says:

      Next time, in 2013., when he conducted the ZPO for the last time, he told me a bit about his work on Amadeus, again in his witty way:
      “When he came to me for the first time, Forman had no idea about Mozart and his music, but till the end of shooting the movie he became one of the greatest experts in the world”.

  • Branimir Pofuk says:

    Oh, by the way, that last time Sir Neville brought to Zagreb Walton’s Henry V soundtrack suite and included actor Rade Šerbedžija in the performance, with the movie bites projected on the big screen behind the orchestra. Another great experience with great Maestro and even greater Man.

  • Adam Stern says:

    Many memories of this superb musician and dear gentleman.

    I grew up in Los Angeles, and my parents and I went to many Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concerts. At one of these, Pepe Romero performed the Giuliani Guitar Concerto before intermission. When intermission was over, Marriner came out and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s been just about the worst-kept secret in the world that I’m celebrating my 50th birthday this week. As a public present to myself, I’ve asked Pepe Romero to play some Flamenco guitar for us.” The beaming Marriner and an equally-joyful orchestra watched as Romero re-entered, sat on the edge of the stage, and lit the place on fire with his playing for about ten minutes before the regular program resumed.

    Several years later, Mr. Marriner came to my college to lead the orchestra in a week of sight-reading rehearsals. We had an extraordinary time working with him and learned a tremendous lot. One day, he was conducting in a particularly vigorous way but obviously not getting the results he wanted. He stopped and said, “Strings, I’m trying to show you with my beat that I want a harder, more energetic attack. If you sit there playing so prim-and-proper all the time, everyone’s going to think you’re British.”

    His one prank was reserved for me. We were reading Shostakovich First Symphony, and I was playing the piano part. There’s that wonderful spot in the second movement where the full orchestra cuts off after a strenuous tutti, and the piano has three whopping a-minor chords, each of them marked by the composer to be played as loud as possible. Marriner gave me appropriately energetic cues, scowling the while, for the first two of these, but for the third, he pulled back, relaxed his face, and indicated something softer and gentler. In the half-second interval in which I had to prepare the last chord, I was thinking, “What do I do? Shostakovich or Marriner?”, and I played it about mezzo-forte with what must have been a very confused look. He then broke up into a peal of laughter. “I was wondering what you’d do with that!” he said between chuckles.

    Thank you, Maestro, for years of beautiful music-making.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    I met Sir Neville on several occasions, first when he invited me to attend one of his recording sessions a few years ago in London. It was the first Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist.

    Marriner put the ASMF through their paces recording and re-recording the final bars of the finale to get even more brilliance and excitement from the music. He then turned to the second movement and played the whole piece through without stopping, glancing wickedly at me from time to time while he was conducting. The take duly finished and Marriner got down off the podium, came over to me and said: “What did you make of that, then?” “I thought it was great, Sir Neville’, I replied. “Ah, you’ll be surprised at what more we can do with this,” he countered with a twinkle, “back in a moment…” and off he went to the control room.

    After 15 minutes he emerged, winked at me and then gave the orchestra at least 20 suggestions on technique, sonority, ensemble and actual expression before retaking the movement, which changed from the merely pleasant, to the sublime.

    “Right, that’s it, boys and girls,” he said afterwards, ” it’s time for tea and buns…”

    The man who introduced me to classical music through his many wonderful recordings, this witty, courteous and quietly determined gentleman set a standard of excellence both in the concert hall and in the recording studio that will remain unsurpassed. I for one will miss him.

  • Christos says:

    I once had the chance to dine with sir Neville after a concert in Patras, Greece, where he concucted the Camerata Orchestra Athens playing Mozart’s 38th and Beethovens Tripple Concerto with the then young talents Renault and Gautie Capuson and Frank Braley on the piano. It was back in June 2006. I was neither a musician nor a journalist. Just a music lover and regular concert goer. I approached sir Neville after the Concert and thanked him saying to him I had never heard a better Tripple Concerto either on recortd or live. His reaction was not that of the typical super star. He replied spontaneously “neither have I, can you believe it?”. Then he went on talking on the talent of the young soloists and took the time to discuss the perfomance in detail. Although an unknown member of the audience, he asked for my name and invited me to dinner with the production team. It took us 4 o’clock in the Morning and the least tired of all was sir Neville. Not affraid to express himself on any subject, musical analysis, evaluation of composers, conductors, orchestras, soloists, recordings, everything. Always noble, direct, confident and at ease with himself. At 4 o’clock everybody in our company felt the effect of numerous glasses of wine, except for sir Neville! Such an adorable personality. The only ‘complaint’ I expressed to him was why he rarely, if ever, did perform Mahler (a great love of mine). He responded with honesty and directness, saying ‘I realy don’t know why. I feel I can’t take him seriously.’ No one is perfect, anyway. But after I met sir Neville, I realised why I had liked, and I still love, so many of his perfomances, especially with the Academy. A real Gentleman. Gona live for ever in our hearts.

  • Marg says:

    I never attended a performance he conducted but feel I know him through his CDs. His Four Seasons was the first of that piece I bought and I played it to death for years. He just seems to have always been there in my musical life

  • Gerald Martin says:

    These anecdotes suggest that a conductor can elict sublime performances without being a humorless martinet.

  • Adam Stern says:

    A sad coincidence: I just read of the passing of theater director Gordon Davidson, which occurred on the same day as Sir Neville’s. Davidson was the longtime Arristic Director of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, and their home base was the Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center — the same hall in which Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra would hold their concerts. Sometimes a play would be in mid-production at the time of an LACO concert, and the orchestra would be seated in the midst of the stage set for that particular play. (I remember one LACO performance in a lovely set for Shaw’s “Major Barbara”, which I also saw and which production featured an up-and-coming actress named Blythe Danner.)

  • Whoever says:

    A lovely eulogy of Neville Marriner’s greatness and his wonderful contribution to music in so many respects. Thank you.

  • Bernard Caplan says:

    The music world has lost another towering colossus.The ASMF under Neville Marriner were regarded as the finest chamber orchestra in the world in the sixties & seventies until the original instrument era started to shed new light on the old baroque & classical period masterpieces.In spite of this ,many of their recordings remain benchmarks to this day. One of my most prized sets of CD’s is the wonderful set of 28 CD’s of the Argo years with the ASMF’s early recordings in wonderful analogue sound. RIP Sir Neville & thank you for the music, a never ending source of inspiration!

  • Pedro says:

    Which great conductors born in the 1920’s are still alive apart from Blomstedt, Haitink, Dohnanyi and Previn?

  • Branimir Pofuk says:

    Dear Christos, just to add to your lovely memories, describing vividly what a great man he was, let me tell you that Sir Neville conducted Mahler’s number One here in Zagreb, with Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra – twice. First time, in 2009., for all of us, the orchestra, audience and him, it fell in an unfortunate moment when Lisinski concert hall was going through some reconstruction so they performed in totally not adequate venue of a bank center hall. Hi did it without complaining, doing his best. But, for his next guest performance in 2011, then back in the concert hall, the manager of the orchestra did a nice, sort of apologizing gesture to him and the audience, and listed Mahler’s Titan again. What a superb performance it was, with the finale still resounding clearly and triumphant in my memory. There was not a hint that Sir Neville has any problem with taking Mahler seriously. And it was Mahler with unusual heavenly smile on his face.

  • Sally J Sparrow says:

    There is an online book of condolences on the Academy of St. martin in the Fields page –