Horn Calls: Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Richard Watkins (horn), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2020

  • Carl Maria von Weber – Overture Der Freischütz
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Horn Concerto (Towards Alba)
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for tenor, horn & strings
  • Richard Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Broke the golden rule. It is bad enough that I inflict this shite upon you and join all the other narcissists clogging up the Interweb and generally adding to the carbon burden. But I had resolved not to comment on anything that I had not sat all the way through. Notes for my own consumption but never yours. Here though I felt compelled to announce just how marvellous a concert this was. Despite walking out after the Britten Serenade and thereby avoiding the Strauss. Which, as it happens, I have heard live a couple of times and loathed. Another bloke in the lift on the way down adopted the same strategy. Why sully the perfect?

For I cannot imagine much better that this take on one of BB’s most sublime, and rightly popular, compositions. Comparable with the composers own versions surely. I might have guessed that Allan Clayton’s tenor is the perfect instrument for the work but how good is that Richard Watkins. He used to be principal horn for the PO, so he was surrounded by plenty of mates and presumably was attuned to Esa-Pekka’s no messing, forceful take on the work, even if he left before the Finnish maestro came to London. (Apparently E-P S, to add to his many talents, is a dab hand himself on the horn). He now works as a soloist fronting the London Winds and is a member of the Nash Ensemble. Every note was delivered exactly as I imagined BB composed it for the mercurial talent of Dennis Brain, the orchestra’s first principal player. The horn, let’s face it, when it enters its expanded harmonic world, is about the most thrilling, note for note, instrument in the orchestra. Obvs you can have too much of a good thing, but not here.

Which makes Mark-A T’s achievement in this world premiere of his own Horn Concerto that much more remarkable. He has always created contemporary classic music of real immediacy, but here, commissioned by Richard Watkins himself, he channels the German romantic horn tradition, of which Weber was a part, through the horn tributes of the English composing generation prior to him, Tippett, Colin Matthews, Oliver Knussen, and of course Britten himself, whilst still keeping his trademark jazzy syncopations and Stravinskian rhythms. BB’s piece, doh, is a paean to the night, setting those exquisite English texts through the ages, to faultless musical ideas, concentrated and not as flashy as some of his stuff. M-A T, in contrast, is all about the sunrise and the coming day. Alba in olde English meant “a call to the end of the night and beginning of the day”.

The so titled brief opening movement has lots of chirpy orchestral lines bouncing off the horn but, never thickens or overwhelms. The slow second movement is inspired by a late Larkin poem, Aubade, a morning serenade, in which the fear of mortality engendered by sleepless nights is banished by the light and the normality of the working day. The horn is the lyrical and bluesy expressive voice set against some beautiful, lower resister, string writing, punctuated with sustained low pedal points. The finale is also drawn from a poem, John Donne’s The Sun Rising, exactly the poet you want to mirror BB’s own choices, and does exactly what it says on the tin. M-A T offers up dense, chromatic, contrapuntal chords over which the horn soars.

Can’t remember the Weber and, like I say, no interest in the Strauss. But this was sublime and I expect Towards Alba to provide plenty of work for Mr Watkins, and others, in years to come. A fitting tribute maybe to another brilliant exponent of the French horn, Australian Barry Tuckwell, who sadly passed away on this very evening. I see Messrs Watkins and Clayton have recorded BB’s Serenade with the Aldeburgh Strings. Time to buy I think and set alongside BB’s own recording which featured Mr Tuckwell on peerless form and Peter Pears, later on his career, was marginally less the mannered English toff.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020

I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.

In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.

PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.

90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.