MUSIC : Fruits of the forest floor

Sinfonia 21 / London Mozart Players St John's, Smith Square
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The Independent Culture
Beneath the tangled branches of front-rank orchestral politics, life on the forest floor has its own pace for our chamber orchestras. For a measure of their present condition, St John's Smith Square was the place to be this week, featuring Sinfonia 21, formerly the Docklands Sinfonietta, on Tuesday, and the London Mozart Players the following night.

Though distinctive in style and repertoire, the two ensembles face similar problems: funding, for which they beat a common path to sponsors' doors; and size, with heavyweight romantic scores, and thus major box-office success, out of bounds. Freshness remains the key to their survival, and a reputation for finesse. Players are amongst the best in the country; conductors are likely to be young, though not untried, and keen to show their promise.

Both Martyn Brabbins, who made his Sinfonia 21 debut last month, and Andrew Constantine, Donatella Flick prize-winner and now with a diary of dates including Wednesday's concert in aid of the Living Image appeal, belong to this category. Being students of the legendary teacher Ilia Musin in Leningrad (other pupils include Sian Edwards and Valery Gergiev), they shared an additional identity which was also the clue to the main novelty in each programme: music from Eastern Europe.

Whether the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks stands to be the next discovery of that region will doubtless soon be known, but not on the strength of Cantabile. A delicate, white-note fantasy on the aleatoric games of Penderecki and Lutoslawski, with rich part-writing for the strings of Sinfonia 21 and a mood of new age "otherness", it had everything except character. For all that, Brabbins led with intelligence and flair, drawing a healthy sound from the ensemble both here and in the closing piece: Mahler's full- string version of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. Tenor Ian Bostridge struck a dramatic pose in Britten's Serenade, with plenty of fire and brimstone in the "Dirge", but less poetic sense in the lyric numbers, for all his deft elocution.

Influence spotting was unavoidable in the other import, Mt Holl's The Song of Hope, the next evening: on offer were Kodaly and Bartok rchauff; a touch of Kabalevsky. But, again, there was no hint, in form or content, of the real composer. Even so, played by pianist Richard Meyrick, whose recovery from serious illness inspired the concert, it seemed a thoughtful tribute, and Meyrick went on to deliver polished accounts of Schumann's Concerto and of Beethoven's Third, notable for the intense phrasing of its slow movement.

In contrast to Brabbins's more daring, dynamic technique, Constantine's gestures were efficiently directed and physically poised. Other pieces might have unleashed more extrovert moods. In the event, a stormy "Hebrides" Overture, boasting fine solos from clarinettist Angela Malsbury and firm overall vision, gave the clue to his latent powers. Not quite a walk on the wild side, but at least a step in the right direction.