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St John's Smith Square

Robert Maycock - The Independent

March 2007 It must be awhile since the composers Grace Williams and Elizabeth Maconchy shared a programme. Even with their centenaries occurring last year and this, they have stayed in their separate boxes, one labelled traditional and the other forward-looking. It took pianist-director Diana Ambache to put them together, and look what happened: as well as the expected contrasts, they had substantial common ground.

This was more than surviving the indifference of a man's world towards creative women. Rather, they shared a liking for clean lines and direct expression founded in a perfectionist professionalism. Neither Williams's Sea Sketches nor Maconchy's Concertino for Piano and Strings contained a note too many, and they both achieved a sense of expansiveness within concise forms.

Of course, the character of the music is quite different. Maconchy's is classical in its instincts. Often said to be under the influence of Bartok, her melodic ideas certainly had a muscular leanness, but the rhythms were her own. Mostly the piano part is chamber music writ large rather than a showpiece, and Ambache kept it punchy and pacy while always remaining part of a proper ensemble performance with leader David Juritz sharing the direction.

Still, it was Williams who made the more positive and individual impression this time. The Sea Sketches use a variety of string textures, creating in one section a striking imagery of mist, uncertainty and stylised foghorns. It's more than her pictorial sense that makes these pieces so engaging. Drama is more important than musical argument of Maconchy's sort, and the forms seem as implicit in the material as Debussy's.

Otherwise the evening belonged to Mozart. Symphony No 33, the first item, had sounded robustly mainstream under Juritz, its pace just right. But the orchestra strikes extra sparks when its founder is playing, and the Piano Concerto No 18 had a peach of a performance, from the muted tragedy of its variations to the abundant exchanges between piano and woodwind that give this concerto its distinctive combination of energy and enchantment.

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