Britain's three premiere chamber groups prove a treat for Americans

By a felicitous coincidence, the three premier chamber orchestras of the British Isles appeared here virtually contiguously recently -- first the English Chamber Orchestra, then the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and finally the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Of the three, the Academy was the only sellout here, indicative of the group's identity as a ensemble, even when missing the conductor who grew famous with it -- Neville Marriner. Iona Brown is now leader of the troupe, which toured with 16 members.

Those qualities we have come to expect from this highly recorded ensemble were all there -- superb blend, vigorous playing style, a wonderful element of risk, and the utter joy of making music. To find that it is no studio-only phenomenon proved utterly exhilarating. The performances were all superior -- the suavity of the Handle, the depth and lyric drama of the Mendelssohn, the elegant, haunting smoothness of the Mozart.

Mis Brown presided strongly over the ensemble, sitting in the leader's (concertmaster's) chair, now playing, now beating time, only rarely actually conducting. For the Vivaldi, she stood center stage as soloist-conductor and proceeded to charm, beguile, and generally astound her listeners with the variety of sounds, of colors, of moods and pictures to be found in the music. The Academy backed her up, nuance for nuance, to render one of the most satisfying performances of the work one is ever apt to encounter. Miss Brown is a stunning violinist.

The English Chamber Orchestra is also an elegant ensemble, but it lacks the specific identity of the Academy, doubtless because of the vast quantity of famous and not-so-famous conductors that have been at the helm for countless records. On this tour, Murray Perahia was the soloist-conductor in two Mozart concertos, as he is on the complete cycle he is recording with ECO over the next few years. Also on the program were Stravinsky's biting "Concerto in D Major for Strings" and Robin Holloway's "Ode for Four Winds and Strings," both conducted by Nicholas Kraemer. Kraemer tends to dull edges, and be lacks a structured approach to music.

Even the A major K. 414 concerto with Perahia seemed rather facile, perhaps even a tat glib. Perahia and ECO seemed more bent on seamless rather than interpretive profile. It was marvelous as far as it went, but offered no hint of what Perahia and the ECO would do in the K. 271 concerto (E-flat major).

Suddenly, a distinguished partnership transformed into a golden-age one, in one of the finest Mozart concerto performances it has ever been my privilege to hear. Perahia is the sort of conductor who is content to beat out time clearly and trust his players to glean their interpretive cues from his playing. And such playing -- gossamer, sparkling, yet underlaid with just the ideal subtle touch of pathos. Perahia would offer a statement, the ECO would match its discreet emotions shift for shift. Here suddenly, a peerless ensemble that lacked a touch of profile became legends are made and, thanks to recordings, will continue to be.

Had the Scottish Chamber Orchestra appeared a few weeks, even months, apart from these others, no doubt the evening would have been more impressive. On its own terms, it was clear that the Scottish Chamber is a handsome orchestra, with which the love of playing is tenored with a commitment to the well-honed felicities of ensemble. The overall polish of the tone is a bit rough -- at times an almost engaging quality.

The raison d'etre of his concert was Jaime Laredo's appearance as both conductor and soloist. He conducts as he plays -- effusively, broadly, glibly.

Miss Brown constantly made one aware of the variety in the music, of the programmatic as well as the exhibitionistic nature of the work. Lareod kept the spotlight squarely on himself, playing richly but similarly on one level only -- and the orchestra supplied merely the accompaniment.

In fact, the best moments in the concert came when Laredo sat down to conduct Mozart's 29th Symphony (A major, K. 201) as a concertmaster. Suddenly the orchestra came into its own, and Laredo's guiding of the work crystallized so many of the moods and amenities that distinguish the symphony. Here the true metle of the orchestra was revealed. Interpretively, it had everything the recent Claudio Abbado performance with the London Symphony lacked. Had there been more ensemble and less soloist (say, an all-Mozart program with two symphonies and one concerto), the concert might have turned out differently. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra would have shown off more of its individual versatility rather than serving mostly as a backup group for an uneven "star."

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