MUSIC / Sticking point: Anthony Payne on the Moscow-based Ensemble XXI

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The Independent Culture
Many young conductors have taken their first step up the ladder to success by forming their own ensemble, but the Irish-born Lygia O'Riordan has gone a stage further by becoming the first foreigner to form an orchestra in Russia. The Moscow-based chamber orchestra Ensemble XXI was founded five years ago with a view to preserving the country's great string-playing tradition and halting the exodus of young musicians abroad. O'Riordan and her players obviously have a big fight ahead of them, and not only an artistic one; as O'Riordan touchingly informed us at the end of her concert at St John's Smith Square on Saturday, young players in Moscow, the second most expensive city in the world after Tokyo, can only earn a fraction of what their European counterparts are paid, and struggle desperately to make ends meet.

This was a concert that did more than merely appeal to our sympathies, however: it covered a wide range of styles from the baroque to the mid-20th-century, and presented playing of youthful enthusiasm and disciplined ensemble. Perhaps the finest performance of the evening was heard at the close in a hypnotically tense interpretation of Martinu's Double Concerto for strings, timpani and piano. It perfectly focused O'Riordan's interpretative personality, but at the same time confirmed a reservation that one had felt throughout the rest of the programme.

Here is a conductor of considerable vigour and high-tension expression who communicates through an almost aggressively sweeping beat. This proved ideally suited to the anger and protest of Martinu's splendid concerto, in effect a rousing response to the Nazi occupation of the composer's native Czechoslovakia, but elsewhere it brought problems. Small doubts began to grow at the outset in Stravinsky's Concerto in D, for while serving sharp-edged, insistent textures well, her hard-driving approach denied the possibilities of contrast available in more lyric passages. The exquisitely chordal central episode in the first movement, for instance, refused to yield an inch and remained stubbornly detached.

This was a characteristic that was borne out in what was her least successful performance, an over-hasty run-through of Mozart's Divertimento in F K138 which, despite the eager participation of her fine young players, degenerated into a fast-forward projection. The notes were there, just, but paragraphs could barely breathe.

Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht also suffered at times from O'Riordan's rather unrelenting stick technique. Rubato was achieved between sections but not within the sections themselves, and complex contrapuntal processes were urged forward in a way that tended towards the mechanistic and so denied individual lines their flexibility and independence. The playing was fine, nevertheless, and many moments impressed, like the ravishing F sharp major section in Part 2, which was characterised with a rapt sensitivity.

Her response to motor rhythm, which yielded such an exciting result with the Martinu, was also appropriately geared to Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor, and the greater success of the second half of the programme was further enhanced by the unscheduled appearance of the legendary Russian harpist Vera Doulova. She had been appearing with the orchestra at St David's Hall, Cardiff, and at the last minute was persuaded to entertain us with a little group of pieces by Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Minkus. Her vitality proved infectious.