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picture of Ruth Crawford Seeger

Flying the flag for neglected female composers

By Stephen Pettitt

London Evening Standard, 28 February 2003

The pianist Diana Ambache's two groups, the Ambache Orchestra and the Ambache Ensemble, have a purpose: they exist in order to fly the flag for neglected women composers. Over the years they've been crucial in shifting perceptions and assumptions with their readings of fine works by the likes of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn. But the two (piano-less) works by 20th century American women composers played in last night's concert, the second in a series called Old Masters, New Mistresses, were hardly unjustly unacknowledged masterpieces, though each was well-imagined and craftsmanlike. To be fair, each must have been chosen with due regard to the personnel required for the last piece, Poulenc's spikey-warm Piano and Wind Sextet. What we heard might, therefore, not have been truly representative of its composer.

Thus Mary Howe's four-movement Wind Quintet of 1957 combined a light, though undeniably refined, Romantic manner with a neo-classicism redolent of Hindemith and a gentle angularity that might have come from 1920s Stravinsky. I was not surprised to learn from the programme note that she had studied with Nadia Boulanger, a woman who had a hand in forming the talents of a host of 20th century greats. And the better known Ruth Crawford Seeger's three movement Suite for Wind Quintet of 1952 stemmed from Schoenbergian roots but was still, for the most part, a lightish, even mischievous confection, rather than a statement of something deep or a recognition of anything very seaching.

Despite the fact that both works were given sympathetic readings neither hers nor Howe's could match Mozart's ability to charm and move simultaneously. His E flat major Piano and Wind Quintet, K452, was treated to a shapely, friendly reading, aptly intimate for the surroundings of the acoustically excellent vebnue, the panelled banqueting room of the 1920s Tudor-style Ironmongers' Hall.

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