It was a perfectly appetising bill of fare at St John's, Smith Square: the Ambache Chamber Orchestra with a Haydn symphony - no 83, nicknamed "The Hen"; and one of Mozart's most buoyant piano concertos, no 19 in F major (K495); flanking the European premiere of Louise Talma's Full Circle...
Who? Hearteningly, even Diana Ambache, that one-woman crusade to endow female composers with some kind of visibility, admitted that two years ago, she had hardly heard the name. This concert was fourth in her two-year project to present works by seven American women of the last century who, with the exception of Amy Beach, never registered with the English public. Much of this music has never been heard in Europe, but by bookending these unknowns with familiar classics, Ambache hopes at least to gain them a hearing. Not only is this to restore a hidden thread of musical life, but to help future female composers to realise that they are not the lonely pioneers/freaks of nature that their isolation forces them to believe that they must be.
Splendidly laudable aims, but was Louise Talma (1906-96) - who looks, from her photograph in Grove's, a bit like Nancy Banks-Smith - worth it? French-born, but quickly moved back to America by her mother after her father's death, Talma studied music in America and at Fontainebleau, where she was taught piano by Isidor Philipp and composition by Nadia Boulanger. She gathered awards - Guggenheim fellowships, Fulbright grants - like other people do blackberries, and in 1962, in Frankfurt, had the distinction of being the first American woman to have an opera performed in Europe.
Full Circle is a concentrated 13-minutes, scored for small ensemble, with piano prominent. It is continuous, comprising seven sections that return, as its title suggests, to a revisiting of the opening. Fast alternates with slow, loud with soft, yearning lyricism in the piano and clarinet or flute develops into motor-driven sections with the strings and percussion, whose rising urgency is only halted by the snap of wood blocks. Although Ambache enjoined us not to listen just in terms of other composers, it's hard not to call to mind French Romanticism, or Stravinsky in its rhythmic imperative and its jazzier, peg-legged syncopations. A likeable piece, it won't frighten the horses and offers moments of real pleasure.
The ensemble played it engagingly and, tellingly, gave in and used a conductor - or, as he diffidently called himself, "a human metronome". The Ambache are models of democratic practice and reaching out: each piece was given a little introduction by a different instrumentalist. They don't play like a piece of precision machinery; this is human-scale music-making. It gave to the Haydn and Mozart not the sometimes chilly wit of the drawing-room, but a more rough-hewn delight in the humour of those works, and the interplay between the different sections - a backdrop against which the individual players could shine.
The next concert in the series takes place on 18 February at the Wigmore Hall