Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.

Pinter at Pinter 6 review *****

Pinter at Pinter Six: Party Time and Celebration

Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th January 2019

This for me was the best off the bunch so far in the Pinter at Pinter one act play season. And proof that Jamie Lloyd is the Man when it comes to directing the menacing Master. Mind you cop this cast. John Simm, Phil Davies, Eleanor Matsuura, Celia Imrie, Katherine Kingsley, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Abraham Popoola. It is something when probably the least well known on this list, Abraham Popoola, just happens to be, as anyone who saw his performances in STF’s Othello, the Bridge’s Julius Caesar and Pity will know, one of our finest young stage actors.

Jamie Lloyd has profitably emphasised the clear connection between the two plays. Both have a cast of 9 and both are centred on functions in swanky locations. Soutra Gilmour’s alternately monochrome and gaudy sets and costume designs, and Richard Howell’s sharp focus lighting, elegantly reflect this. In both cases a wealthy elite, inured to the concerns of, and detached from, wider society, bickers amongst itself. There is the usual menace, threat, misogyny, oneupmanship, bitterness, jealousy, entitlement and exaggeration that is the HP hallmark but here employed in the service of biting satire. The social class that HP is shredding may differ in each play but the message is the same.

Party Time dates from 1991 and originally premiered with the more overt political satire of Mountain Language seen in Pinter One in this season. Phil Davis’s businessman Gavin is hosting a party where the barbed chat revolves around country club membership, luxury island holidays and past affairs. John Simm’s Terry cruelly bullies his wife Dusty (Eleanor Matsuura), particularly when she mentions Jimmy, her estranged brother. The other guests are equally offensive and vapid in their various ways. Occasionally the sniping and boasting stops and a bright white light is revealed through open doors at the rear. The outside world has plunged into violent disorder, suppressed by the state, and eventually Jimmy (Abraham Popoola) stumbles through the light to deliver a poetic monologue describing this collapse.

Celebration, from 2000., sees Ron Cook’s Cockney villain/businessman (“strategy consultant” in his own words) Lambert celebrating his wedding anniversary with wife Julie (Tracey-Ann Oberman) and brother Matt (Phil Davies), and his wife Prue (Celia Imrie), who is also Julie’s sister, in a swanky restaurant. Vulpine banker Russell (John Simm) and partner Suki (Katherine Kingsley) who Lambert “knows” eventually join them. Restauranteur Richard (Gary Kemp) and Maitresse d’ Sonia (Eleanor Matsuura) alternately schmooze and patronise their ignorant, nouveau riche guests. Waiter (Abraham Popoola) “interjects” to tell tall stories about the literary circles that his grandad mixed with. Here class is the target though some rather darker themes, misogyny, misandry, incest, domestic violence, also emerge.

As elsewhere in this excellent season, the connections that run through HP’s work, and their continuing relevance, are highlighted. The divisions between an elite, defined by wealth, and the rest of society are laid bare. The callous indifference and amoral stupidity of this moneyed, brash, narcissistic class, and those who seek to emulate it, is laid bare. Materialism reigns supreme.

Of course this being Pinter there are times when you are going to fell pretty uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, but, this also being Pinter, you are also going to laugh, a lot, notably in Party Time. Whether you are laughing at, or with, the characters, or at, or with, yourself, is for you to decide.

Impossible to pick out favourites with a cast of this calibre, but if pushed, I would go for Ron Cook and Tracy-Ann Oberman. The latter does not have quite as many lines as some of her equally renowned peers but every one strikes home (it would be good to see her back in some Shakespeare) and Ron Cook is about as perfect a Pinter actor as it is possible to get. Mind you the last few times I have seen him he has pretty much stolen the show (The Children, Girl From the North Country, The Faith Healer and The Homecoming).

One more collection to go as well as the production Betrayal. Even the venerable Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, Tom Hiddleston et al are going to have there work cut out to top this.

SoundState Festival: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Stewart McIlwham (piccolo), Colin Currie (percussion)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2019

  • Arne Gieshoff – Burr
  • Anders Hillborg – Sound Atlas
  • Erkki-Sven Tuur – Piccolo Concerto (Solastalgia)
  • Louis Andriessen – Agamemnon
  • Helen Grime – Percussion Concerto

It is amazing what a little bit of knowledge, a dash of pretension and a fair amount of persistence can do. A few of years ago, like any right-minded, gregarious, gainfully employed individual, the Tourist wouldn’t have gone near a concert comprised solely of contemporary classical music. A minority pursuit for the culturally affected. Now I am wondering how many of the Southbank’s SoundState festival to attend. In the end I bottled it and only pitched up to this but there was plenty across this adventurous festival ,for the musically curious to get their teeth, and ears, into. Try it. What have you got to lose.

The draw here, aside from the always perky Marin Alsop on the podium and, of course, the LPO, was the Percussion Concerto from Helen Grime, written for master whacker Colin Currie, and the Louis Andriessen premiere. I also figured three Nordic composers, who I admit I had never heard of, couldn’t be a bad thing. (Though it turns out only one was actually from the region showing how little attention I was paying and the pitfalls of lazy ethnocentricity). And who would’t be tempted by a piccolo concerto.

Well it turned out that the Andriessen was as bold and brassy as expected, the Percussion Concerto will definitely require a revisit but the big surprise, for me if not the cognoscenti as he is already a big noise in their world, was Anders Hillborg’s Sound Atlas.

As Marin Alsop wryly observed her introductory interview with Arne Gieshoff was in danger of lasting longer than the piece itself. It was inspired by a wooden “burr” 3D puzzle, dates from 2014 and certainly had some spunk about it. There was an echo of Elliot Carter in the concentrated energy circling more stable “pedals”.

Estonian Erki-Sven Turr lives on an island in the Baltic Sea, (images of Nordic noir crime drama immediately pop into my head – a dull day and very windy,) and was prompted to write Solastalgia by the visible impact of climate change on his surroundings. Solastalgia is a time coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the distress we feel when we see how the climate is changing the environment of our memory.

(Now my regular reader has probably divined that much agonising has left the Tourist in the Stoical camp, philosophically speaking. We humans will come and go, we are not special, we will have failed to hang around for very long in the scheme of things (despite thinking we are better than every other species) and the earth will get over the damage that our brash, selfish selves do. Still he can’t deny that it is pretty scary to watch how our infantile inability to defer gratification has left us f*cking up so much in my lifetime, with climate the obvious victim).

In Solastalgia the piccolo acts as the squeaky catalyst for much bigger shifts of texture and process across the orchestra.. E-S T describes his “vectorial” compositional style in the programme but I confess it is beyond me. As was frankly this work. Never mind, if you don’t try it you won’t ever know if you like it.

Sound World was commissioned by the LPO alongside the LA Phil, the NDR Elbphilharmonie and Goteborgs Symfoniker, and this was its world premiere. Now this was much more my style. Crystalline is the word used to describe its sound world and the first section, which makes sense giving the extensive use of string micro-tones and the eerie squeals of the glass harmonica, expertly played here by Philipp Marguerre. River of Glass, Vaporised Toy Pianos (!!!), Vortex and Hymn follow this first section and all accurately describe the mood and texture of the music. It is measured in tempo and there is enough relation to diatonic history to make it easy to digest. Ligeti sat on top of Romantic, Sibelian string drones.

Helen Grime, like the three composers mentioned above, had a few words to say ahead of her piece, again receiving its world premiere. For someone so talented she is remarkably modest. To be fair there wasn’t anything ground-breaking about the Concerto in terms of structure, with three movements played straight through, (Bright, Subdued/Lamenting and Fleet-footed/Mercurial), instrumentation or technique, but, if you have one of the best percussionists in the world, then you might as well turn up the virtuosity quotient, which she duly did. The outer movements were predominantly tuned percussion, marimba, glockenspiel and vibe, with the inner section largely tom-toms, bongos, cymbals and woodblocks. The best ideas came with the frenzied, semi-quaver rhythmic repetitions at the beginning and end, counterpointed with strings and with the interplay between soloist and orchestral percussion. The wobbling pitches of the middle section, like all “drum solos”, was remarkable more for CC’s skill than musical inspiration. Even so I was rapt, but then I always am by this musician. Given how excited he was it is remarkable he didn’t crash into anything as he bobbed from one side of the podium to the other.

Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon was here also receiving its European premiere. The inspiration was The Iliad and LA helpfully lays out the Dramatic Personae to include homo-erotic warrior Achilles, defecting bird-watcher Kalchas, the hapless, wind sacrifice Iphigenia and best-served-cold vengeful wife Klytaimnestra, as well as the brutal Mycenaen king himself. I must admit to being a little suspicious of this conceit especially when I saw that LA had pimped up his orchestra with a couple of pianos, a sax, electric and bass guitar and a drum kit. Well, as is always the case with this veteran composer, I should not have worried. The characters do not appear in programmatic sequence, except at the end, when Kassandra, she of the prophecies, steps ups with text from Aeschylus, via Ted Hughes, and here voiced by woodwind Principal Sue Bohling. Instead the colour and tone of the various episodes in the 20 minute piece indicates the various mortals of the story. War and terror are audible, this is Greek tragedy after all, but there are softer, more lyrical passages, notably for oboe and sax. There isn’t too much of the LA post-minimalism with which I am more familiar, though there are echoes of ancient musical structures a la his classic De Staat, but there are jazz infections and syncopated percussion. A kind of post-modern tone poem/film score if you will.

It was a lot to take in but there was more than enough that warrants further examination and would be surprised if any of these pieces fail to get a further outing in years to come. The hall wasn’t full but it was busier than I have seen for many a more traditional programme. That perhaps speaks to the esteem in which Marin Alsop is held. Many a conductor talks a good game when it comes to new music: she, and the LPO, were prepared to put in the hard yards to make it happen. There were certainly four happy looking and grateful composers on stage.

Approaching Empty at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Approaching Empty

Kiln Theatre, 16th January 2019

An overly optimistic faith, despite a welter of evidence to the contrary, in the combined efforts of South Western Railway and Network Rail’s ability to convey passengers to the stated destination on time meant that the Tourist pitched up late for this showing. So he had to watch the set up in Ishy Din’s new play on one of those little black and white TV screens that theatres provide for latecomers (and production crew obviously) where the sound is reedy thin and where the lighting comes across like a molten sun on stage. Not the first time either. Please make sure you never take the Tourist’s casual attitude to pre-performance timekeeping.

Anyway it is April 2013 and we are in a minicab office in Middlesborough. Mansha is marshalling the cabs through a mic whilst bored twenty-something Shazad is phonearsing (this being my all-encompassing term for texting/browsing/Instagramming/WhatsApping/taking selfies/looking at cats/admiring themselves/trolling/dying a small death at the fake success of others/Candy Crushing and whatever else it is you people do on your phones). The telly in the background pipes up with coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral. Raf enters, coughing.

Now it transpires that sharp Raf is the owner of Kings Cars, Shazad is his vague son, supposedly learning the ropes, and Mansha is Raf’s mate from way back, and manager of the cab office. We hear from feisty Sameena, a new driver, who comes back to the office, as does the gullible Sully, Mansha’s son in law, and we hear talk of Sameena’s younger brother Tony, who plays a pivotal role at the end. From these characters Ishy Din builds a story of a friendship, missed opportunities, family ties and a double-crossing all wrapped up in a critique of neo-liberal economics (with Mansha and Raf’s different takes on Thatcher’s legacy being the catalyst). Mr Din was himself a taxi-driver in this very city, and the dialogue rings true and the sympathetic characters arrive fully formed. The problem is the somewhat lumbering plot and telegraphed reveals. It is not a bad story, quite the reverse, but in his haste to crank it up the playwright smothers the interchanges between his characters, which is where the play is most affecting. Less might well have been more.

As it is we do take away how Mansha and Raf, as first generation Pakistani immigrants, have gone from hard, but dignified, graft in the factory, to a more precarious existence in the service economy, and how many, and not just in this community (the intention was to write a drama which could equally well be set elsewhere in “left-behind”, post-industrial Britain), end up skirting the law in some way. Rosa Maggiore set looks the part and Pooja Ghal’s direction is supportive of people, place and message. Kammy Darweish as Mansha is the epitome of careworn decency and Nicholas Khan as Raf neatly treads the line between arrogant, shifty and desperate. I will look out again for Karan Gill who impressed as Shazad. I have seen Rina Fatania (Sameena) and Nicholas Prasad (Sully) so was not surprised by the way they end humour out of their characters. Maanuv Thiara was left to do what he could with textbook thug Tany.

This is the second of a proposed trilogy about Asian men in Britain, with theatre company Tamasha, following his debut Snookered from 2012. Ishy Din came late to the scriptwriting game but it’s pretty easy to see he has the ear. The last play will focus on men who leave families to work here with the intention of returning “home”. I will look out for that and for his earlier work. Whilst Approaching Empty, in its dissection of a community whose bonds are fracturing under the stress of financialised capitalism, doesn’t quite scale the heights of, say, Sweat at the Donmar, it is definitely worth seeing, and when Mr Din reins in his desire for action, slows it all down and focuses on family and faith, he is going to write a classic.

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Maxim Vengerov (violin), Martha Argerich (piano)

Barbican Hall, 12th January 2019

  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043,
  • Robert Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E flat major

I cannot tell a lie. I didn’t go to the Oxford Philharmonic’s 20th birthday bash at the Barbican Hall to listen to the orchestra though there were clearly a fair few university types, students, alumni and academic staff, in the packed house, who plainly did. No it was the chance to see three world class soloists strut their stuff, though try as I might I couldn’t find a chum to accompany me.

Well they didn’t disappoint. Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxin Vengerov were, unsurprisingly, electric, and Martha Argerich showed why she is, unarguably, the world’s greatest living pianist. And that in a piece of music, the Schumann Piano Concerto, that remains a mystery to me. It is a very disorientating feeling, being enraptured by an artist’s playing yet not really caring about, or even liking, what she was playing. Quite the opposite with the Bach Double Concerto which is a belter. As is the Beethoven, obviously, though sadly, not here. Too rich and too slow for my taste.

The Bach was, surprisingly, Baroque-like however. Of course these two were never going to abandon the vibrato completely and this was a pretty fulsome band, but there was more than enough motoric chug from the continuo and strings to keep this HIP-ster happy. And when the two of the started riffing off against each other, especially in the sensuous Largo aria-like movement, you’d have to be a particularly humourless period music fanatic not to get carried along. Particularly as the two soloists, with their contrasting sounds, Ms Mutter brighter and sweeter, Mr Vengerov, richer and darker, and the OP players, seemed to be having such a ball. A-SM, what with her mannered interpretations and sergeant major-ish exhortations to the orchestra can seem a bit serious at times, and MV can be too doggedly static. Not here as they belted through the canonic closing Allegro. Easy to see why JSB always had Vivaldi on shuffle.

Now obviously I would rather listen to Martha Argerich playing stuff that does it for me. Bach, Beethoven, Scarlatti, her Chopin and Ravel, some Mozart and her way with the Prokofiev concertos (there is also a bit of Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich in her recorded chamber repertoire I think). But Schumann is pretty close to the top of her favourites and she, because she is close to the divine, gets to choose. Now it seemed to me that in the opening Allegro she had to set Marios Papadopoulos and the OPO on to the same page as her, but once done, the magic started to work. Like I say I don’t understand or care for Schumann’s music but watching and hearing MA weave a reverie in the slower, middle movement and then show her superpower technique at the end of the closing Rondo, even with the orchestra doing its level best to blast her out, was a privilege. How on earth she can play that fast, that accurately and that beautifully is a mystery. Even if you have no truck with this, or any other classical music, I am convinced, if you heard here play live, you would understand. No encore. Shame.

Mr Papadopoulos is no mean pianist himself, especially with Beethoven, but his main musical legacy will be the creation of a top notch orchestra from scratch for Oxford, the town and the University. However on the basis of this Eroica he is resolutely old-school. Now I have a fair few recordings, Harnoncourt, Rattle, Szell, Gardiner, Haitink, Furtwangler and an Abbado (BPO. I mostly listen to the Harnoncourt with the COE, the classic Szell with the Cleveland and the Haitink with the Concertgebouw. So you can see I like my Beethoven, quickish, exact, rigorous and detailed. Not stately, lush, long on vibrato and rubato and all ubermensch-y. The orchestra doesn’t have to be chamber+ sized but it has to have that intent. The best live performance I have ever heard was the Britten Sinfonia’s under Thomas Ades in 2017. (You can still get to hear their 7,8 and 9 in May this year at the Barbican for just £15. The bargain of the decade).

I see a number of proper reviewers liked this “traditional, unidiosyncratic, steady, sturdy, big-boned” interpretation. Not me I am afraid. I began to wonder if it was my own funeral in the Adagio. There is no reason why a performance clocking in at 50 minutes can’t bring a sense of Beethoven’s overall structures. Not here though. I started inventing repeats that weren’t there.

Still it takes all sorts. And, like I said, I came for the soloists and to share in the celebration which was rounded off with a cheesy Happy Birthday medley encore.

Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

Uncle Vanya

Hampstead Theatre, 12th January 2019

Should you be tempted to follow the Tourist into a life of excess …. theatre-going … then I have a warning. These luvvies do put on a lot of Shakespeare. No surprise there I guess. But they also really, really love their Chekhov. As will you after prolonged exposure. But I had not realised just how much there is lurking about. Particularly when you remember there are only really five full plays to choose from. There are a also handful of one-acters and “Platonov”, but basically you are going to get to know these five pretty quickly, particularly when you consider that, whisper it, they all explore similar themes in similar settings. Mind you, given the day-job as a doctor and the billions of short stories he wrote you could never say our Anton was an idler.

It’s the tragic-comedy thing I think. That’s what the directors, casts and, obviously, us audiences are attracted to. And the fact that there are so many layers. And that the characters, even if they are of a certain class at a certain time in a certain place, grapple with the real stuff of life. In short they spend a lot of time basically f*cking it up in one way or another, as we all do. The misery of dashed expectation.

The Chekhov industry also benefits from the seemingly unquenchable desire of other playwrights to adapt his dramas. Not just new works in some way drawn from or inspired by the great man, but countless new adaptations generally now taken directly from literal translations, which the dramatists have then stamped their own ideas, idiom and style on. And I am only talking about the English versions. Samuel Adamson, Torben Betts, Ranjit Bolt, Martin Crimp, Michael Frayn, Brian Friel, Pam Gems, Peter Gill, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, David Harrower, Robert Icke, David Lan, Mike Poulton, Carol Rocamora, Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard and Nicholas Wright. That’s just the playwrights I have heard of. A very illustrious list I am sure you will agree.

This diversion was sparked by an interesting essay in the programme which looks at the translation and adaptation process and, in particular, how necessary or desirable it is to stay close to the language and/or spirit of Chekhov’s original text. Given AC’s ability to capture the universal, as well as the very particular, I can see why this continues to be a source of immense fascination to these clever and talented people.

Particularly when you consider the fact that this play, Uncle Vanya, is itself based on AC’s own earlier play The Wood Demon. This was written in 1889 though never published but sufficient manuscripts survived and many patient Russian theatre companies have given it a go. AC was pressured into writing it by his publisher Aleksey Suvorin who also contributed plot and even some text. By all accounts he was a bit rubbish but when he lost interest AC kept going and, after it was rejected by three theatres, The Wood Demon eventually got a showing only to be crucified by critics and (small) audiences alike. AC though didn’t give up on it, retaining two-thirds of the text but cutting the cast back to 9 main characters, (previously many of these had “doubles’ of one sort or another), upping the autobiographical contribution, (prevalent in all the plays), reworking Suvorin’s nepotistic bequest and stripping out a load of poncey literary references. And changing a crucial bit of plot, from a successful to a failed, suicide. Result? Well not quite overnight success,Uncle Vanya had a few provincial outings and a bit of a run in with the censors before the triumphant opening in Moscow, but it is, arguably, his most perfect work.

It was probably then only a matter of time before Terry Johnson joined the roll call of other very clever playwrights listed above and had his own shot at Chekhov. Here he upped the interpretative stakes by taking on the role of director as well, (and casting daughter Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia). My regular reader will know that I am more than favourably disposed to the work of Mr Johnson, despite being a relatively late-comer, with his last original outing, Prism, in this very house, turning into one of those plays that continues to pop up in the memory.

Well he unashamedly opts for the traditional when it comes to the setting, though Tim Shortall’s design cleverly morphs the interior and exterior of stylised dacha with silver birches, and Ben Ormerod’s lighting attractively rings the diurnal and seasonal changes. And there is some mighty fine tailoring on show. The production thus continues the HT’s long run of exquisite sets. (Mind you, having set up the look of fin de circle rural Russia, the soundscape of Emma Laxton doesn’t do much to offer an aural equivalent). TJ has no truck with any of, for example, the modish Anglicisation of Robert Icke’s Vanya at the Almeida. The language is simple, direct and idiomatic. “Modest” is what Terry Johnson, in his own words, set out to achieve and a modest production is what he delivers.

Whilst this might, at times, leave a little bit of the characters’ complexity of motive of the table it does make for a beautifully crisp plot development. Who does what to whom is very easy to grasp and this leaves plenty of headspace to ponder why they do what they do. AC famously said he was better at writing middles than ends and beginnings and this straight reading emphasises that and doesn’t encourage too much in the way of contextual or historical analysis. It is though very funny. Mr Johnson is alert to the humour in Chekhov and, as director, he can, er, direct us towards it. Whilst still showing up the vulnerabilities and venoms that lie behind it.

Alan Cox is a perky, self-aware Vanya. He can’t resist conspiratorially pointing out the failings of others though he well knows his own. He could have been a contender but now he is mordantly shuffling towards …. nothingness. Robin Soans as Serebryakov is fall of flatulent entitlement and Kirsty Oswald, who stepped in at the last minute to replace debutant Abbey Lee, is an unusually sensitive Yelena. (Apparently she kicked off with script in hand in which case she has come a very long way very quickly. Bravo). Alice Bailey Johnson similarly gives us a Sonya who is more assertive than normal, completing, with June Watson’s Marina, a triumvirate of women who bear the burden of supporting their various menfolk. Kika Markham also turns in a solid performance as Maryia, blindly in thrall to her son-in-law’s feeble academic reputation, as does Alec Newman as pickled idealist doctor, and babe magnet by geographical isolation, Astrov, and David Shaw-Parker as the permanently chipper hanger-on Telyeghin.

The Tourist caught one of the last performances, which, in a classic as richly textured as this, is normally not a bad idea. which means it’s gone now. However, if you are still a Vanya virgin don’t despair, (at least not at all you see it). Just like the 38 bus there be another one along shortly.

The LSO and Barbara Hannigan at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 10th January 2019

  • Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
  • Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
  • Nielsen – Symphony No 4 “Inextinguishable”, Op 29

I am pretty sure that Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the CBSO from 1991 was one of the first classical music CDs that I bought, (there was a bit of vinyl prior to this and I have never been what you might call an early adopter). So there was a time when I liked, or thought I should like, the Sibelius symphonies and Sir Simon’s way with them. No longer I am afraid. I can get the ebb and flow, the organic construction, the elemental, the river and sea analogies, but I just start to zone out after a while and it all turns into a bit of a drone. Maybe Sir Simon’s now generally heavier readings, deliberate pacing and eye for detail overwhelmed the piece but it did nothing for me.

What a confession to have to make. I understand that the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1924, was itself something of a mould breaker what with its one unbroken movement, its constantly shifting tempi and its dogged reliance on C major and minor. And the fact that he wrote it when p*ssed up to his eyeballs. He went on to compose the tone poem Tapiola and an arrangement of the Tempest suite and a few chamber pieces, and destroyed the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony, but by 1929 he was done, publishing nothing for the next three decades, although I gather he tried, (as well as knocking up some tunes for his Mason mates). Retirement, after a lifetime of excess, was clearly good for him since he got to the ripe old age of 91. I can see why the Finns are so proud of him but I am with those who hear the radical conservative in his music rather than the conservative radical.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle, let me tell you, from 2012-13, was composed with Barbara Hannigan’s voice in mind. He wasn’t the first contemporary composer to do this and he won’t be the last. For her soprano is a most extraordinary instrument. The piece is divided into three parts with seven sections in all and the text, created by Paul Griffiths from his novella of the same title, is drawn entirely from the 483 words that Ophelia delivers in Hamlet, though with very changed meanings and tones. This Ophelia speaks of memory, of music, or love and she doesn’t end up face down in a pond, hair artfully arranged amongst petals. The music of Mr Abrahamsen is (micro)-tonal and largely consonant, but he does slice it up in unusual ways harmonically, whilst still offering a clear, if shifting, pulse behind the glittering, glassy melody textures, driven by percussion and high strings. As most informed commentators have said, it is wintry music, no question. Now I can’t pretend the music leapt out at me on first hearing but it did create a solicitous backdrop for that voice and there is no doubt I will be listening again.

Whether she is singing Britten, Berg, George Benjamin, Gerard Barry, Ligeti, or any number of other modern and contemporary composers it has not yet been my pleasure to hear, she is utterly beguiling and totally convincing. Her soprano is light and clear, but immensely powerful, and she can act. I had another look at Lessons in Love and Violence, this time courtesy of the BBC broadcast, and this time therefore up close rather than the dolls-house view from the ROH amphitheatre of the live view. Firstly a reminder that it is a very, very good opera and secondly there are times when, as Queen Isabel, Ms Hannigan, IMHO, is up there with the best of stage actors, whilst still managing to sing exquisitely, with meaning, to the back of the auditorium.

In this piece HA has served up all manner of opportunity for BH to show off that emotional connection, with suspensions, tremolos, swoops and soars, mournful ululations, floating high notes, even Monteverdian rebounds or, to use the technical term, “stile concitato”. It was a big success when to first appeared, the recording with Andriss Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO went down a storm, and the audience lapped it up at the Proms a couple of years ago. Easy to see why HA, BH, Sir Simon and the LSO fully deserved the applause.

The Nielsen was an altogether jollier affair than the Sibelius (Danes being, in the Tourist’s experience, somewhat more upbeat company than Finns). And for me, Rattle’s deliberate way, and the LSO’s accurate playing, served this much better than the Sibelius. Nielsen, as we all know, liked to chuck it about a bit and here in the Fourth with his defiant sub-title and programmatic exhortation – “in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….” – he starts as he means to go on.

I can see why some might not take to the Nielsen’s progressive tonalities, awkward, clashing sonorities, his shifting themes, big, bold rhythms and mix of C19 and C20 musical languages. For me he is, in contrast to Sibelius, the conservative radical. Tonalities don’t always comfortably agree with each other, but always resolve in some way. I like the way all the ideas jostle for space, and there are many interesting and unusual textures and colours, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of composers from earlier and later decades. One foot in the past and one in the future. If you started with Brahms and Grieg, mashed it up with a hefty squirt of Mahler, a dash of Shostakovich, put it in an oven marked Bartok and Schoenberg, whilst still remaining in a kitchen built by polyphony and Bach, you might have the recipe.

He went through a wobbly phase through the turn of the century, listen to the Second Symphony, and he certainly played up to the stereotype of the troubled Nordic creative. Whilst recognised in his lifetime, it took some a much longer before his distinctive voice was recognised internationally, if not in Denmark, where his songs remain part of the country’s fabric.

The symphony has four defined movements, but these are unbroken, and it takes a few listens to realise that themes that emerge in each of the movements do, in fact, share material. The opening Allegro opens with a stirring crossing of woodwind and strings and from which emerges a hopeful woodwind whistle in E major, which returns in the final movement. After numerous dramatic rises and falls the climax of this movement also anticipates the final resolve. The Poco Allegretto which follows is an impish folk tune, subject to various treatments. The Poco Adagio starts with descending strings set against an intermittent timpani thud, turns a bit darkly pastoral, before building to another foretaste of the climax. The final Allegro starts with scurrying strings, before some Hollywood gush, some chaotic martial cross rhythms, a calmer phase before the message of hope, if we can just endure, is hammered home.

The Fourth was written in 1916. Nielsen had gone into WWI a proud nationalist like Sibelius and so many artists and intellectual across Europe. It didn’t take him long, amidst the carnage of industrialised slaughter, to change his mind. This was his response. “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable”. A fair motto to also attach to the composition from his countryman a century later.