MUSIC / Academy rules: Adrian Jack on the ASMF Chamber Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
THE Academy of St Martin-in- the-Fields Chamber Ensemble launched its 25th anniversary series on Wednesday with plenty of French music.

Ravel's Introduction and Allegro was commissioned by the Parisian firm of Erard as a show-piece for its new harp: the composer's scoring of this discreet yet potentially flamboyant instrument with string quartet, flute and clarinet is a balancing act of real compositional virtuosity. Skaila Kanga played it with vigorous aplomb.

Chausson's Concert for violin, piano and string quartet is, by comparison, a rarity, and much less easy to categorise. It is arguable whether it is a miniature concerto or a sextet. While the quartet has a distinctly accompanimental role and plays mostly as a single body, the piano supplies a brilliant, rippling texture of arpeggios and suchlike which are spectacular without being vulgar or soloistic. It is the first violinist who fills that part, and whose entry in the first movement is deliberately delayed to give it force.

Kenneth Sillito, the Ensemble's director, was the soloist, and stood while the others sat; although his tone was a bit acidic and his intonation not always true, he certainly brought prompt address to his demanding role. Hamish Milne, the pianist, had the busiest, if not the most rewarding, task, and was never found wanting; all the players beamed with pleasurable relief at the end. In the context of this concert, the work seemed long, but it's a characteristic and powerful example of Chausson's discreetly passionate romanticism and deserves to be heard more often.

Debussy's Trio Sonata also contradicts traditional models: it is far from a trio sonata in the 18th-century sense. Written in 1915, it retains all its ability to surprise: its elements of style are so familiar, yet so oddly put together. It can sound rather fey, but here was vigorous and alert. The flute writing is so ravishing, almost any good flautist sounds even better, and so it was with Christine Messiter. Robert Smissen also made some gorgeous sounds on the viola.

Brahms's Clarinet Quintet came, finally, as something of welcome tangibility and reassurance. Andrew Marriner had an unusually soft-grained tone-quality and showed himself a particularly tactful ensemble player. With his more passionate sallies in the slow movement, his tone tended to coarsen at the top - but just try to find a clarinettist with whom that wouldn't happen.