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Maconchy

Wigmore Hall

Michael Church - The Independent

****

July 2007

With their championing of underrated women composers, Diana Ambache and her ensemble have carved out a useful niche. As a chamber group with a proper musical agenda, they're deservedly prospering in an overcrowded field.

But their programme on this occasion suggested a slight loss of nerve, which Ambache's preamble bore out: "Congratulations on your open-mindedness in deciding to come tonight." Under the title English Allsorts, they would present us with four rarely-performed works by 20th-century British composers, but they would kick off with Mozart's "E flat Piano Quartet", to sugar the pill.

They despatched it with verve, but one could only half focus on it, given the knowledge of what was to follow: an oboe quartet by Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994). Her intellectual rigour was on full display: oboist Jeremy Polmear wisely gave us an advance taste of the idiom in which he was going to play a forceful style full of angular leaps and rugged intervals. The work was riveting: if we heard Bartok in the string colouring and slides, it was Bartok transmuted into something new.

Next came an Air with Variations by another grande dame, Dorothy Howell (1898-1982): this was its first airing for 50 years. Its elfin charm suggested Poulenc, but there was something four-square and English about the way oboe, violin, and piano interwove; the variations came and went with accomplished ease. Frank Bridge's "Phantasy in F sharp minor" was equally accomplished, as you would expect from a composer-virtuoso who had immersed himself in both the First and Second Viennese Schools, and whose student was Benjamin Britten. One heard echoes of Chopin, Brahms, and Rachmaninov in his flourishes: pastiche of a high order, if not ultimately memorable.

And so to Malcolm Arnold, whose Quartet for Oboe and Strings exploded with energy: Bartok was audible here too, in the thickets of pizzicato and the emphatically scrunched discords, but this was still an English voice. "Thank you for listening," said the violist as he introduced the piece. And thank you, for broadening our minds.


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