S&H Concert review

Mozart, Malcolm Arnold & Elizabeth Maconchy The Ambache, Diana Ambache, St John's Smith Square June 6 2001 (SD)

Diana Ambache founded her own chamber orchestra to perform the music of Mozart and his contemporaries, but also to promote the cause of women composers past and present. The Ambache's current series, 'Not Your Eine Kleine' aims to present works by Mozart other than his most popular, and always features a piano concerto as a vehicle for Ambache herself. The lightly scored Symphony, K319 (1779), with its breezy, serenade-like atmosphere, belongs to the tradition of the Austrian chamber symphony, unlike Mozart's later works in the form. In the exuberant Allegro Assai, with its playful syncopation, the Ambache caught the mood well with their brisk, light touch and tight ensemble under the strong direction of leader Marcia Crayford. Just occasionally the small wind band - oboes, bassoons and horns - threatened to overpower the strings.The delicately languid Andante moderato

was very cleanly played. In the stately Minuet the St John's acoustic slightly blurred

such passages as the strings' ascending scale to the main theme's octave leap,

and the tutti entry of the Minuet recapitulation was ragged. In a sterling performance of the vigorous finale the violins articulated very niftily. Malcolm Arnold's light-hearted First Sinfonietta was written for the Boyd Neel Orchestra in 1954, and reflects, in its unassuming nature and frank melodic appeal, the composer's desire to please and entertain above all. The opening has a wistful outdoor feel reminiscent of the Copland of Appalachian Spring. We heard some very eloquent oboe playing in the first two movements and good sturdy horn playing throughout, particularly in the whooping third movement solo. Some uncertainties in the strings in the Allegretto were compensated by the very vivid solo viola, and the last movement's athletic, cascading string line was polished and energetic. Maconchy's Theme and Variations for Strings, written 11 years earlier in 1942-3, is of an entirely different nature and seems to convey some of the angst of war. The work has a powerful rhythmic urgency and a jagged aggression juxtaposed with tender yet uneasy lyricism indicative of her early absorption in the music of Bartok, Shostakovich and Janacek. Though the main theme is quite slow the nine short variations are generally more animated. They feature impassioned dialogues between instruments, in the manner of her string quartets, with a beautifully played violin solo as well as violin and cello duet in the second variation. This was a heartfelt and highly focused performance of a powerful work which deserves to be played more often. Finally, Diana Ambache showed herself an agile pianist in Mozart's K453 Concerto (1784), with its rippling passage-work. I felt her initial entry was overly starched and detected hints of stridency in both the Allegro and the Andante, despite the evident authority of her playing. The orchestra were beautifully subtle in their delicate, at times spare accompaniment, depicting all the intended mystery here and again at the start of the finale's veiled G minor variation.

Sarah Dunlop

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