Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone

Barbican Hall, 2nd June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Beethoven
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 1 in C Major, Op 21
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 2 in D, Op 36

After the chamber concert earlier in the week reviewed here – Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** – I was really looking forward to this, the first of the cycle of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Thomas Ades with the Britten Sinfonia. I wasn’t disappointed. It was outstanding.

The first thing to say is that the Hall was half-empty. This is a real shame as I think Mr Ades and the BS are outstanding advocates for these masterpieces. Remember this is early Beethoven and these two symphonies rarely get performed. If this is what they do with these pieces then goodness knows what surprises they will spring on us in rest of the cycle with the classic symphonies. The Eroica, No 3, the symphony that changed Western art music, is up next week, 6th June, and I really urge you to take the plunge.

I suppose it is possible that some are trepidatious about Mr Ades pairing Beethoven with Gerald Barry. With the Eroica comes Barry’s Chevaux de Frise which I gather is a full on noise-fest. Right up my strasse but maybe not for the twinset and pearls brigade. But for you young hipsters a perfect bragging opportunity surely.

In this concert the first two symphonies were paired with Mr Barry’s eponymous paean to the great man himself. This takes Beethoven’s famous letters to his “Immortal Beloved” and sets them to music, with a 15 strong band and a bass soloist. Well sort of sets them as the tone of the music often seems to bear no relationship to the overblown prose of Beethoven. It does sort of sound a bit like Mr Barry is taking the p*ss to me, but not in a malicious way, but in a gently affirming way. There is the typical Stravinsky-ian rhythmic propulsion that I now understand is typical of Mr Barry’s music, but this is interspersed with much tenderer tunes. It has the full quota of dissonance but again this seemed less jarring than in his other works. Mark Stone sang, or more precisely, recited the English translation of the text without alteration and with the occasional falsetto shift in character.

The whole effect of the piece then is to strip away the “romantic’ in Beethoven’s words and to emphasise the prosaic. And by doing so it becomes a way of humanising the great man and working against all the mythic baggage that surrounds him. And it ends with a chorale based on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” that silly old me found quite moving. I still have a strong memory of visiting Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven wrote the sad letters to his brothers and composed the second symphony, many, many years ago on a miserable, chilly winter’s day and this all came flooding back. Anyway I thought this piece was fantastic.

So then we came to the real McCoy. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this was firmly modern in sound bar the timpani (remember despite being 40 strong here this is nominally a chamber orchestra). Yet the full on, pacey tempos could not be more period if they tried. This for me is the ideal combination. I get the power in these still largely Classical compositions but with all of the sparkly brightness. It also means that the Beethovian trademarks – the look at clever old me “wrong key” opening, the blasting winds and the “just kidding” slow opening to the final movement of the first symphony – and the properly pumped up scherzo and stirring “I’m still standing” repeated tunes of the second symphony – are as fresh as a daisy.

And Mr Ades is an energetic conductor to say the least. Which definitely spills over into the BS’s playing. If you like your Beethoven old-skool gushy romantic probably best to steer clear. If you like your Beethoven with driving rhythms and shapely muscle then this is for you.

Will let you know how the Eroica pans out but I suspect I will like it. After all, after number seven, which is probably the greatest musical achievement ever, its my fave.

BTW in the interests of completeness I should mention another leg of this week’s Beethoven love-in. I went to hear Bernard Haitink (the world’s greatest living conductor) guide the LSO through the third piano concerto with Mitsuko Uchida (one of the world’s greatest living pianists) as soloist. This time the Barbican Hall was full to the rafters. No great surprise. Obviously it was stunning. Mr Haitink doesn’t get up to much on the podium – never has done as I recall – but here is simply no-one better able at phrasing this or any other music. Ms Uchida puts a bit more effort in but that still doesn’t prepare you for the sheer power of her Beethoven playing. It is technically brilliant but it just floors you when she comes in after the long orchestral opening, in the cadenza, and the flourish ahead of the bonkers last movement finale. And by getting perilously close to shutting up shop completely the spaces between the notes in the slow movement were exquisite. She doesn’t do all this diva-ish showing off and never puts herself before the thread of the music. Anyway you get the picture. Can’t think of  a better combination than this soloist with this conductor with this orchestra with this composer. The prolonged applause suggested most agreed with me.

No review as I didn’t stay for the Bruckner. That to me is just masochism.

 

 

Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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Richard Goode

Royal Festival Hall, 31st May 2017

  • JS Bach – Partita No 6 BWV 830
  • Chopin – Nocturne Op 62/1
  • Chopin – Mazurka Op 41/3
  • Chopin – Mazurka Op 41/4
  • Chopin – Mazurka – Op 50/3
  • Chopin – Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61
  • Beethoven – Sonata No 28 Op 101
  • Beethoven – Sonata No 31 Op 110

Whilst I do not own any recordings by renowned American pianist Richard Goode, and have not (to my knowledge which is fallible) seen him perform in concert, I was attracted to this programme and by his reputation in this repertoire. This certainly did not disappoint particularly in the Beethoven sonatas.

I know the Bach from a Glen Gould recording. For me no-one comes close to Gould’s musicality in Bach on a modern piano but Mr Goode’s more deliberate counterpoint was still in a pleasure in this delightful work. The first movement toccata is kind of the star of the show with a showy fugal structure at its heart. Then we get the dancey movements but as ever with JSB’s partitas (for whatever instrument) they take the dance base and ask the player to give it a thorough workout with many profound touches.

The mazurkas were a little more impactful for me than the Polonaise-Fantasie as this late work is where Chopin starts to get a little overbearing. I confess I am generally more for the smaller scale, “simpler” Chopin works, but the last of the Op 50 set is a bit more ambitious and actually therefore was a more satisfying listen when sandwiched between the chunkier works of Bach and Beethoven.

The slow movements of both of the late Beethoven sonatas were particularly impressive. The final movement of No 28 is a blinding pice of music with its tonal shifts and the acceleration to the finale. The same structure is employed in No 31 but here the songlike first movements and jaunty scherzo ends with a radiant slowish fugal movement which goes through massively dramatic stops and starts. There are plenty of more immediately attractive middle period sonatas and the big bastards like No 29 Hammerklavier and No 32 (all human life is there) but No 31 might be the best of the bunch because its gets more out of less. Anyway who cares, every note on the piano he ever wrote gets me.

 

 

 

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review *****

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Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry, Britten Sinfonia

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th May 2017

  • Beethoven – Septet in E Flat Major Op 20
  • Gerald Barry – Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park
  • Beethoven – Piano Trio in E Flat Op 70/2

I’m guessing that composer heaven is a miserable place. All those blokes (the world of classical composition, at least until the mid C20 is, like pretty much every other sphere of human activity, a damning indictment of the patriarchy), sitting at their pianos with a rictus grin unable to conceal their seething of the one bloke who wears a permanently beatific smile. He is called Ludwig van Beethoven and he is smiling to himself (cast that famous scowling portrait of him out of your mind) because he knows he is better, way better, at his job that all the rest of them. And they too know it.

I suppose it is possible to spend a life without Beethoven. I might have done and I know plenty of people who do. And I realise how much of a pretentious pr*ck I sound for saying it. And that I am implicitly asserting the cultural supremacy of Western and “high” art by doing so. This is not my intention. The thing is, his music is just so very, very good. Pulse, beat, rhythm, melody, harmony all perfectly laid out. To quote the zeitgeist there is always an “emotional journey” in our Ludwig’s pieces, sometimes trivial, sometimes on a grand scale. But more importantly there is musical logic. I can’t read music and don’t really understand the language. But I know that this music is, at its best, perfect and can conjure up that sensation of “nothing else mattering but the music” like nothing else.

So I was looking forward to my week of concert going which was basically just one long Ludwig love-in, largely, though not exclusively, in the company of Thomas Ades, and his fellow contemporary composer, Gerald Barry. Mr Barry is a self-confessed Beethoven nut. Mr Ades, whose work betrays his chameleon-like snaffling of the history of Western art music culture, is also a champion, as revealed by this three year cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Britten Sinfonia, which has just kicked off. I really like Mr Ades as a composer, witness my review of the Exterminating Angel below. But now I have been bowled over by his skill as a performer and conductor as well.

The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

This chamber concert ahead of the symphonies, kicked off with Beethoven’s Septet. Old Ludwig gave this a right pasting in his life-time as he considered it a bit of a trifle compared to all his later “serious” stuff. Far be it from me to disagree but I think he was wrong on this. It certainly easy on the ear with six movements all based on dance forms, and it unmistakably still Classical, but it is still full to the brim with ideas. Direction is provided by the solo violin and here Thomas Gould was excellent, supple, yet still candid, in his playing.

Mr Ades and Mr Barry then took to the floor for a two piano version of Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park, Mr Barry’s first opera. I have seen performances of his last two operas, The Importance of Being Earnest and Alice’s Adventures Underground (semi-staged and conducted by …. one Thomas Ades), and I bloody loved ’em. Anyone who thinks contemporary opera isn’t for them should see Importance – it is a hoot.

Anyway this piano piece delivers excerpts (literally) from his earlier opera which showcase his rhythmic power and use of comfortable dissonances contrasted with quieter, simpler, almost lyrical passages. It is this bold rhythmic attack that I like as well as the bawdy humour that seems to break out. Mr Ades composes in a similar vein even if the influences are a little more diverse. Their music doesn’t require a PhD to grasp and there is far less of that long, drawn-out, slow movement, plinky-plonky, atonal musing that has turned me off other contemporary composers. I can’t call it easy listening, but it is easy to understand. So seeing them bash the bejesus out of the pianos was a joy.

In the final piano trio, Mr Ades was joined by Thomas Gould on violin and Caroline Deamley on the cello. Op 70 no 2 is a little less well-known that no 1 the “Ghost”, but I prefer it. By now Beethoven was well and truly in his brave new world as he starts shifting us all over the place in terms of mood and tempo but still basically serving up a robust structure amidst all the “how did he do that moments”. Now Mr Ades is a big fella and he packs a punch (as the previous piece had shown) and he did’t hold back here. This contrasted with the more measured reading of violin and cello to great effect (for me if maybe not the purist). But this power is what I think Ludwig heard. There is a perfectly formed skeleton, there is flesh on these bones, and there are pleasing, delicate features. But for me the one abiding characteristic of Beethoven is muscle. And this performance suggests Mr Ades agrees.

I think I am going to like the symphonies.

 

 

The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***

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The Treatment

Almeida Theatre, 24th May 2017

I didn’t really get on with this. The premise is interesting, the acting was accomplished (all the leads were new to me) and there were ideas to ponder upon, but I just didn’t find it that involving, either emotionally or intellectually.

I had wanted to see a work by writer Martin Crimp. I had previously only encountered his work through the libretto for George Benjamin’s haunting contemporary opera Written on Skin. So with an Almeida production directed by Lyndsey Turner (Chimerica, Faith Healer, Tipping the Velvet, Hamlet, Posh, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – all fine productions that I have seen and that she has directed in recent years), and heartened by positive reviews, I had hoped to find a new favourite.

The plot focusses on how Anne’s (Aisling Loftus) story of her odd relationship with husband Simon (Matthew Needham) is appropriated by husband and wife “facilitators” Andrew (Julian Ovenden) and Jennifer (Indira Varma who for me stood out – a character that appears to speak first and then not really think too much afterwards). This is then turned into a film with the help of has-been writer Clifford (Ian Gelder), star actor John (Gary Beadle) and assistant turned starlet Nicky (Ellora Torchia). From this is spun a meditation on the fractured nature of modern urban (specifically New York) existence, the relationship between art and life, the restless superficiality of modern culture and the perversion of attraction.

Mr Crimp is a favourite of the Continental European stage and a go-to translator and the tone of this work shows why. It is mostly naturalistic (with a few curveballs to keep us on our toes – a blind cabbie for example, mirrored by a Gloucesterian eye gouging). For me it evoked that flat, clipped, precise almost vapid style beloved of novelists who worship at the altar of Brett Easton Ellis. Nothing wrong with that but I am not sure I go along with the idea that this play was somehow ahead of its time. For me it was very much of its time, despite I assume some deft updating (exhibit A – the smartphone – the gift that keeps on giving to the social commentator bereft of a commentary).

I normally find myself able to recognise what critics, programme writers and all the creatives say that they can see in terms of ideas, sub-texts and the like, but here I was a little off the pace I think.The satire of how the big bucks movie world takes a “real life” voyeuristic story and then twists it beyond recognition to make it more “real” unerringly hits the target and the delusions of the creatives in this tale are well observed. As a more profound enquiry into the alienation and neuroses which bedevil Western urban existence, I would be more circumspect. In its different way something like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver makes a better fist of nailing these themes I think, though again it is firmly locked in its time.

To be clear I didn’t mentally drift off (a happily rare but sure sign that the play is not for me) nor would I put anyone off who wants to take this in. It was just that it felt a little less than the sum of its parts. Not a no, not a yes, but a maybe.

 

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****

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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 25th May 2017

I love the theatre. It wasn’t always so. Until relatively recently I confess I didn’t have the time or, more importantly, the patience to really grasp what it was all about. Yes I would see a few plays, and sometimes, if the production delivered, and I wasn’t tired or distracted, I could get lost in the drama for a couple of hours. This was though, an infrequent distraction.

Things have changed. I count myself immensely fortunate that I now have the time, and the means, to indulge what is developing into a passion, nay addiction. Which brings me to Mr Edward Albee. Until the last couple of months I had never seen one of his plays. I was just about cognisant of his existence, and had seen the Burton/Taylor Virginia Woolf film version, but that was it. Now I have seen, in quick succession, the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf production, directed by James MacDonald and with Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill acting their socks off, and now this version of The Goat.

And I can’t wait to see more of his plays. This was really, really good. The set-up is as simple as it is provocative. Martin, our prize winning architect played by Damien Lewis, reveals to best friend Ross (Jason Hughes) that he has fallen in love, emotionally and physically, with a goat. Ross is compelled to tell Martin’s wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo), who then tells son Billy (Archie Madekwe – what a play to debut in). So we have a man at the top of his game with a fatal flaw who through the action of another is brought crashing down. So this is the classic Greek tragedy updated (apparently the word tragedy comes from “goat ode” in ancient Greek). This forms the structure from which Albee explores the nature of love, its relationship to sex, what society admits is permissible and what is not, and, through an immensely rich text, why this is so,

The ultimate transgression of bestiality is a brilliant device to play with an audience. Obviously it puts us into a very uncomfortable place but also encourages us to laugh, both because some of the dialogue is genuinely funny (Martin and Stevie’s intelligence and liberalism make them very aware), and as a way to deal with the apparent absurdity of Martin’s behaviour. Yet as the other characters come to terms with what Martin is telling them the tragedy of the situation comes through. Hearing and feeling the audience’s reaction to the drama is what makes this an outstanding play.

Damien Lewis perfectly captures Martin’s pedantry and, as he moves from a curiously passive matter-of-factness, to a more impassioned exhortation of what he has done, we get pitched between disgust and sympathy. Jason Hughes as Ross represents a society that cannot, and will not, tolerate his actions. I confess that I think Sophie Okonedo is a brilliant actor – her performance of Margaret in the Hollow Crown is the best thing on the screen which, given the competition here, is saying something. Anyway the way she charts Stevie’s journey from disbelief and incomprehension through anger and vengeance, yet still being reflexive, was riveting.

A play ideally makes you laugh, cry, think and reflect. Inwardly, if not always outwardly. It should also stick with you. This fits the bill for me and, I gather, other theatrical smart-arses. I also gather there have been some highly regarded performances since it premiered in 2002. So maybe the play itself was what bowled me over but I am hard pressed though to see how this production could have been better. A more conflicted Martin from the off maybe – but then that removes his fatal justification on which the reactions hang.

In the hands of director Ian Rickson, nothing gets in the way of the tragi-comedy on the stage. That is as it should be. Next up he is directing Against at the Almeida. I can’t wait.

So if you are like me a couple of years back – a bit too busy to do more than a handful of plays a year – this is what you should do. Book this, there are a few weeks left, the transfer of the Almeida Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre and the transfer of the Royal Court’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. No risks, five star reviews for all of them across the board. Then just wait for the next blockbuster.

 

 

 

Occupational Hazards at Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Occupational Hazards

Hampstead Theatre, 20th May 2017

You can learn a lot at the theatre.

Rory Stewart is (actually was, given Parliament is dissolved) a junior minister at the Department of International Development. Apparently he has known the playwright here, Stephen Brown, since they were kids. Mr Stewart sounds like a bloke with a fair amount of derring-do and an admirable compulsion to get stuck in. In September 2003, at the age of 30, and having already walked across vast chunks of near Asia with just the clothes on his back, he blagged his way into the role of a governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq post the “liberation”. I am guessing that being a scion of Scottish aristocracy, child of a diplomat, Eton, Oxford PPE, tutor to the royal princes and the Diplomatic Service may have helped get the job, but he might just have got lucky (or unlucky as it turns out).

This play dramatises the book he wrote about his experiences. I haven’t read it but I am guessing there is a healthy dose of self-aggrandisement at work. No matter. The question is does this make a good play. After some initial misgivings I have to say it does. It is, unsurprisingly, event driven. There isn’t a lot of exploration of Mr Stewart’s character and motivation (or indeed of the other protagonists), he is the referee between the various parties, and the device of his explaining events direct to the audience only serves to heighten this impression. The play doesn’t go in for dramatic expositions of opposing views or for exploration of historical and geographical context. It gets on with it. Much like Mr Stewart himself did I suspect.

What this approach does mean is that the shifting nature of the struggle for political control post the liberation, and through the attempts to rebuild the province, are very well described. It is confusing at first but gradually the characters and the issues shift into focus which I guess deliberately mirrors the confusion rife in those few months. It certainly points up the multi-faceted consequences that arose from the failure to plan for government in Iraq after the Baathists were booted out.

I knew nothing of any substance or detail about these events beyond a few headlines and pre-conceptions. Now I know more. And this was delivered by a fine cast, led by Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Rory Stewart, and director Simon Godwin in a dynamic, thoughtful and eloquent way. Given the subject and the subject matter it might be easy for others to criticise this. I will not. The run is nearly over but if the subject matter holds any interest, and it probably should, I would genuinely recommend this and think there is a place for more of the same.

 

 

The Levelling film review *****

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The Levelling, 23rd May 2017

This is director Hope Dickson Leach’s full length film debut. In the screening I attended there was a short but illuminating interview with Ms Dickson Leach which discussed the difficulties female film-makers face in bringing their ideas to fruition. She gave up for a bit but came back. And she eventually managed to get financing for this film. Well all I can say it thank goodness she didn’t give up and thank goodness she got the money. This is a genuinely outstanding film. I can’t wait for her next outing – I’d be happy to give her a few quid if it helps

Clover, played by the astounding Ellie Kendrick who apparently is in that Game of Thrones frolic, is a veterinary science student, who returns to the family dairy farm on the Somerset Levels following the death of her brother Harry. Dad, Aubrey (David Troughton), it is fair to say, is somewhat emotionally stunted. The farm is a mess having never recovered from flooding and with no insurance bailout. Aubrey has abandoned the house to live in a caravan in the farmyard. He likes a drink. The two then fail to talk to each other in any meaningful way as the events that led up to Harry’s death are played out – not just the immediate past but over many years.

It is beautifully shot. This is not a conventionally attractive landscape. No attempt is made to leaven the atmosphere. The sun doesn’t shine at all. It rains quite a bit. There are however sone striking close ups of nature to remind us where we are. A farm is not a classic location for a British film I believe. We city types dominate the medium and the rural normally appears more arcadian that Hobbesian. The fragility of the existence and the temptation to take risks to secure economic viability is deftly portrayed. The sheer hard work of running the farm is not hidden.

Not much happens. Not that much is said. But the despair, disappointment, resentment and blame that the two central characters feel is remorselessly laid bare. You want to shake them to sort it out and swallow their pride. You know they can’t. The emotional intensity of the ending is shattering. All of this is accomplished with relatively sparse dialogue and there is loads of detail which remains ambiguous if not entirely elusive. What happened to Mum, why did Dad despise Harry, how exactly did Harry meet his end, what was the relationship between Harry and his best mate James (Jack Holden), who dreamt up the dubious plans to rescue the farm, will Clover stay and why? Don’t let me give the impression that this is in any way frustrating – it is what makes the story so utterly compelling.

The proper reviews have observed how this looks and feels like a horror film without the horror. It certainly begins in that vein. This is apt. Except, as those reviews have also generally observed, the unembellished horror of what has happened to this family is all too real.

If this all sounds more art house foreign auteurish that the Archers you’d be right. Ms Dickson Leach has herself cited the influence of the Dardenne brothers and Bruno Dumont (note to self: find out who these chaps are). Then again it is just so English – in the where certainly, but also in the who and the why.

I could go on and on. The mark of any great film, play, book, artwork is that it stays with in the days and years that follow its viewing. This slam-dunks that test. It will get under your skin. I doubt there will be a better female lead performance this year. Hope Dickson Leach is a mighty talent. And all this probably done for less than the bog paper bill for the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean: Just Serve Them Up Any Old Sh*t.

And this father – daughter relationship is throwing up some truly great films (Toni Erdmann, Graduation as well as this). Maybe there really is still some cinematic mileage in BD’s withering glances following my hilarious observations.