Ambache Chamber Ensemble

Piano Quartet in E flat, K493
Oboe Quartet
Air, Variations and Finale
Phantasie Piano Quartet in F sharp minor
Quartet for Oboe and Strings

Ambache Chamber Ensemble [Daniel Rowland (violin), Stephen Tees (viola), Judith Herbert (cello), Jeremy Polmear (oboe) & Diana Ambache (piano)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 27 June, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Diana Ambache, together with her chamber ensemble and, indeed, her orchestra, has a name for excellence in Mozart, together with advocacy of music by women composers.

At this concert we began with Mozart. 20th-century music followed, including two works by women (Maconchy and Howell).

The Mozart was soft-grained and sunny, befitting a work written soon after “The Marriage of Figaro”. Piano and violin dominate the writing, in turns. Ambache played the concerto-like piano part lightly but magisterially, deftly giving the scale runs and arpeggios the fleeting lyricism they deserve but do not often receive. There was poise to her playing, but I missed Mozart’s sparkle. Daniel Rowland’s violin tended towards ardour, yet had a welcome degree of coolness, too.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Oboe Quartet was arresting – played admirably with detached, taut distance and intense, dedicated disengagement. Jeremy Polmear’s opening, stating the main fragments tersely, held the attention, as did the subsequent restatements from the strings. Maconchy seemed often to have boxed herself into a corner: the only alternative to her austere norm that she would permit herself was a savagery that is more uningratiating still – a knee-jerk rasp recalling Bartók. The device was repeated throughout the work, becoming wearisome. The ending to the second movement scherzo left me rapt, however. For a few bars, Maconchy allowed us to hear an open dialogue between oboe and strings. The inspiration, lacking the usual armoury of rigid austerity, became momentarily quiet, engaging and reflective. Jeremy Polmear did the moment proud, relaxing his tone just a little, no more than was required.

Dorothy Howell’s Air, Variations and Finale, first performed by Leon Goossens and others in 1949 to great acclaim, but shamefully neglected since, is both engaging and accomplished. Its supple spaciousness and searching rhapsody made it an admirable foil to the monolithic ironwork of Maconchy. There was technical versatility, too – a variety of dulcet sounds produced by a variety of means. Howell wooed us with her writing. She knew her craft; she died in 1982.

Bridge’s Phantasie was the most distinguished of the 20th-century pieces. Determinedly tonal, it was nevertheless rich, restless and explorative. Sonically, it was the most adventurous work of the evening. An acute ear was at work, hearing all sorts of sounds – some presaging the advances of Benjamin Britten, his pupil.

Changes of idiom from the soft yet stylish Mozart to the lean Maconchy, the swooping warmth of Howell and the rich, cool authority of Bridge tested and demonstrated the Ambache Chamber Ensemble’s high calibre indisputably.

I found Malcolm Arnold’s Oboe Quartet something of a puzzle. The melodies are unashamedly tuneful yet rather lacking distinction. The accompaniments were far more arresting yet they became unvarying; hence, eventually, monotony. The work was sober and austere – an interesting contrast (and, for Arnold, a welcome relief?) to the luscious sweetness of the themes from “Hobson’s Choice” (the Charles Laughton film he wrote music for) played as an encore.

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