BBC Symphony Orchestra and Vilde Frang at the Barbican Hall review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Vilde Frang (violin)

Barbican Hall, 21st March 2018

  • Anna Clyne – This Midnight Hour
  • Benjamin Britten – Violin Concerto, Op 15
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major “Pastoral”, Op 68

The Violin Concerto is one of those Britten pieces that takes a bit of time to get used to. It was written in 1939 so contains plenty of the youthful flashiness, and debts to Stravinsky, which characterise early BB, but with a more serious intent which reflects his admiration for Alban Berg, whose own Violin Concerto, was the last in a frustratingly thin oeuvre. BB attended the posthumous premiere of Berg’s masterpiece in 1936, in Barcelona in the shadow of the forthcoming Spanish Civil War, as well as two further performances later in the year. Understandably he was mightily impressed.

BB’s own concerto was premiered in New York in March 1940 by the Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, given that he and Peter Pears were stuck there following the outbreak of war. The British premiere was in April 1941 in BB’s absence. Despite BB’s revisions in 1950, 1954 and 1965, which brings a little more of the late Britten’s soundworld to the violin part, the piece has historically been more admired than loved, but it has developed a bit more of a following in recent years.

Which means that some of today’s finest violinists have taken up the BB VC cause. These include Janine Jansen who played the piece with the LSO last year under Semyon Bychkov in this hall last year. This is not a concerto full of showy virtuosity, the soloist works on the ideas with the orchestra, but it does require a formidable technique. Ms Jansen certainly has that but the performance overall was a bit more athletic and weighty than I might have liked (though maybe that was the influence of the Mahler on the bill).

In contrast Vilde Frang, who has also recently recorded the piece, seemed a little bit more delicate, most obviously in the pianissimo sections, and the double stopping, of which there is a surfeit in the Scherzo, more Baroqueish than Modernist. This lighter, though still enthralling touch, made the final coda, constructed in BB’s favourite Passacaglia form, even more irresolute. a good thing in my book. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with a little rumble on the timps, then the bassoon takes up the tune, and then the rest of the orchestra, returning to it ostinato through the movement, whilst the violin moves in and out with its uneasy, song-like lament. The second theme is also martial in intent; there is a link to Shostakovich, but with more elegance and less hectoring. This theme is taken up by the violin, not the orchestra, in the recapitulation which ends with an unsteady coda. The second movement scherzo is spiky and Prokofievian in feel, with a very sinister transition to a tutti before ending with a cadenza, based on the first movement tunes, in which Ms Frang excelled. The ground bass which underpins the variations in the final movement is a bit wobbly in terms of tone, at one point D major triumphs,¬†ending with a simple chant, over which the violin dances around, never quite closing out.

I think it is the uncertain tone, literally and metaphorically, that makes the BB VC seem like harder work than it actually is. Played like this though it is up there with the very best of BB’s works which require a full orchestra, the contemporary Sinfonia da Requiem and the War Requiem. It is a lot less knotty that the Cello Symphony that’s for sure. Having said that BB’s textures always work better for me in the pieces for smaller orchestras. I went back to the benchmark recording I have, the ECO under BB himself with Mark Lubotsky as soloist. Maybe I was just in a good mood at the concert but I reckon Ms Frang and Sakari Oramo gave them a pretty good run for their money, especially in the opening movement, which seemed to get to the point more quickly.

The BB VC was preceded by the London premiere of a 12 minute work written by Anna Clynne, British born now working in NYC. It was written for the Orchestre National d’Ille de France where she was resident composer. It is resolutely tonal and packs a hell of a punch. It is pretty sexy stuff too, as was her intention, based, as it is, on Baudelaire’s poe Harmonie du soir and one line from a poem by a chap called Jimenez about a nude lady running through the night. She packs a lot into the piece, kicking off with a rushing theme low down in the bass and cellos, moving to some sparkling woodwind, a slab of Brucknerian grandeur and then a Ravel like sharp waltz, before the whole thing seems to whirr around again. Apparently Ms Clyne notates her score with mood markings, intimate, melting, ominous, feverish, ferocious, aggressive, skittish, beautiful, eerie, which is easily comprehended. I have got much better at taking in contemporary compositions at the first, (and often only), outing, but this piece doesn’t require too much concentration, so immediate is its impact. Seems like the audience agreed judging by the reaction and deserved applause when Ms Clyne came out of the audience.

Which meant that, unusually, Beethoven took the back seat. Absolutely nothing wrong with Mr Oramo and the BBCSO’s take on the Pastoral but there wasn’t too much to get the pulse racing. The detail was there but the pacing was relaxed and the orchestra didn’t seem as engaged as when they are getting their teeth into unfamiliar repertoire or having to convince the big crowds at the Proms. Brooks babbled, birds sand, peasants partied, lambs gambolled, the storm came and went, but Mr Oramo didn’t seem to find the genuinely symphonic in the way others have. Still it’s Beethoven so pipe down Tourist and be happy with your lot.

 

 

 

The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

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The York Realist

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd March 2018

Live in Sheffield? Like theatre? Then you must go see this production of the 2001 play, The York Realist, which is on at the Crucible for the next couple of weeks. Live in Sheffield and no interest in the theatre? Even more reason to go. The family at the centre of this play went to see the York Mystery Plays and they were bowled over by it. The same will happen to you if you see this. Cast iron guarantee.

This is the first time I have seen a play from the pen of Peter Gill and I can’t imagine a more sympathetic production. This revival is a co-production between the Donmar and Sheffield Theatres and, if this is what Artistic Director Robert Hastie, serves up to the good people of Sheffield on a regular basis then I might just have to move there. I see there is a production of Caryl Churchill’s epic, by her standards, Love and Information set for early July. I’ve signed up. For those with the attention span of a gnat this is the play for you.

Back to The York Realist. The “York Realist” was, probably, the writer of 8 of the 48 individual plays or pageants which make up the York version of the Medieval Mystery Plays. These were constructed as a way of bringing the Bible stories to the hoi-polloi, both as performers and audience, through the C14, C15 and C16. The 8 plays in question are characterised by the broad, Yorkshire vernacular in the text, lending them an everyday realism. A production of the Mystery Plays is what brings together the protagonists in the play, John and George, in the early 1960s. Peter Gill too has conjured up a completely naturalistic play, over four acts and set entirely in one set, the main room of the tied cottage which agricultural labourer George shares with his unnamed Mother. George’s sister Barbara lives nearby with husband Arthur and son Jack, and nearest neighbour Doreen is a regular visitor.

There is a little formal experimentation in terms of chronology but none of the shenanigans ushered in to British play-writing by the likes of Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Bond, Churchill and Stoppard. The plays opens with John visiting George after his Mother has died, before we revert to the early days of their relationship. At its heart this is the love story of John and George and it is a very affecting love story indeed, (some parallels with the recent debut film from Francis Lee, God’s Own Country, I gather).

Well-spoken southerner John, a doe-eyed, polite Jonathan Bailey, is the assistant director at the Mystery Plays, (as indeed Peter Gill was in his youth in the 1960s). George is a blunt, muscular, salt of the earth type who can’t commit to sticking with the play. It is hard to imagine anyone else but the excellent Ben Batt playing the part. John has come to persuade him back to the play. Their attraction is obvious from the start and both actors are completely convincing in their relationship. George’s seduction is amusingly direct, John’s coyness easily overcome

Their relationship flounders more on the rocks of class and geography than the reaction of family, who have tacitly accepted George’s sexuality. George feels bound, or maybe chooses, to stay looking after ailing Mother,¬†Downton’s Lesley Nicol, and eventually bows to what seems inevitable by taking up with the humble, attentive Doreen (Katie West), who has been waiting all her life for him despite his identity. With minimal and unforced dialogue, and some very gentle disclosure, we also get to see the ambitions and frustrations of bluff Arthur (Matthew Wilson), indefatigable Barbara (Lucy Black) and Brian Fletcher’s Jack who seems destined, if reluctant, to take up farm labouring.

What is so brilliant about Peter Gill’s writing is the way, within this entirely naturalistic scenario, he draws out the themes he wishes to explore. John’s slightly patronising middle class fascination with the past, the rural and the antique, (though he isn’t prepared to abandon his life and work in London and creature comforts to live in the country), George’s acknowledgement of all that London has to offer but his fear of moving (“I live here”), the denial of identity, the pull of family, gender roles, the allure of self-sacrifice and devotion, the limitations placed on aspiring working class actors, the power of theatre and its appropriation as “high culture”, the inequity of tied farming. None of this is rammed down your throat, and perhaps the biggest dichotomy, the fact that gay relationships were still illegal in the early 1960s, is made more telling by its near absence in the story.

Apparently Peter Gill has a long association with the Donmar as writer and director. Just shows how much I know. I was aware of his guiding hand behind the Riverside Studios in its heyday in the late 1970s and his association with the National Theatre Studio in the 1980s. I see that the new Riverside Studios is close to completion, (passed it on the bus the other day), though I think it will be devoted once again to TV. I only got the bus because I didn’t have time to walk along that part of the Chiswick riverside where Peter Gill lived. That’s one of the joys of culture-vulturism. All the little coincidences and connections.

I can’t imagine Robert Hastie’s direction, Peter McKintosh’s design, Paul Pyant’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound being bettered. I do note that some of the proper critics think this has improved on the original production at the Royal Court in 2002. I can tell you it is a very fine play and, if they match this, I hope to see other revivals of Mr Gill’s work. Meanwhile people of Sheffield you know what to do.