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Fanny Mendelssohn

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Female composers are finally getting due recognition, says Stephen Pritchard

The Observer

1 May 2005 Britain's concert halls and opera houses abound with talented and inspirational women performers, but the UK musical establishment's neglect of the work of women composers is nothing short of scandalous. How absurd that we should have to wait until last week, for instance, to hear the English premiere of a concert aria that Fanny Mendelssoh wrote in 1835.

Paternal strictures forbade Fanny - sister of the celebrated Felix - from becoming a professional musician and so she had to write and perform at home, chiefly at the family's popular Sonntagsmusik afternoons in Berlin. And yet she was published and widely popular; when Felix went to visit Queen Victoria, she asked him to play a particular Mendelssohn favourite of hers. He had to admit that it was actually his sister's, not his own.

Fanny poured all her frustrations into her music, which is passionately intense, and yet we only know of her work and those of many others thanks to the efforts of musicians such as pianist Diana Ambache.

She founded the Ambache Chamber Orchestra 21 years ago, chiefly to play the works of Mozart and his contemporaries, but in 1986 stumbled across a Piano Concerto by Germaine Tailleferre and began a mission to bring the work of neglected women composers to public attention. To date her Orchestra has given more than 40 premieres of works by Clara Schumann, Elizabeth Maconchy, Marion Bauer, Amy Beach and Louise Farrenc.

The Ambache plays under the direction of its leader, Gabrielle Lester, which promotes a great deal of interaction between the players, who raced through Fanny Mendelssohn's dramatic and beguiling Concert Overture, pouring out its radiant C major sunshine into St John's. Their Mozart Symphony No 21 was deft and charming, but they overwelmed soprano Sofia Mihailidou in the concert aria Io d'amor, oh Dio, mi moro

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