Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Nasty masculine habits
It's a messy man's world in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, which I finally caught up with a few weeks back at the National Theatre. Grubby, wildly entertaining but self-repeating Wystan Auden (Richard Griffiths, pictured above for the NT by Johan Persson) welcomes the buttoned-up Britten (Alex Jennings) back into his life as each unknowingly reaches the end. Britten is working on Death in Venice and the boy issue rears its head, guaranteeing the public's prurient interest.
That meeting never took place, but it's a good premise for a play. Surely, though, somewhere along the creative process Bennett lost faith and was maybe advised that this elegant double act would need more culture and knowledge than the audience might possess. So it's wrapped up in a self-referential luvviefest as the play about Auden, Britten and their mutual biographer Humphrey Carpenter goes into rehearsal. In the early stages, this provides a lot of quick-fire laughs, not to mention the bizarre moments when rotund Fitz/Griffiths is forced to don a wedding-cake-left-out-in-the-rain rubber Auden mask to promote resemblance. Jennings, of course, needs less excuse to at least suggest his genius's phiz.
The trouble is that whenever Bennett's subject starts getting serious, he turns away. I began to be hooked and moved by Jennings' portrayal of Britten's locked-in anguish half way through the second act, but then we were back to the jokey world of the the-atre. Thank goodness Bennett has a lot more wit and wisdom than Stoppard, with all his toe-curling attempts to be clever and make little England feel it's clever too. But the end is a disaster: the wonderful Frances de la Tour as stage manager Kay tells us how someone - ie woman - always gets left out, and then there's this hideous cap-doffing to the National. Hytner and Bennett can't have their cake and eat it, complaining about elitism and exclusion and then congratulating themselves on their own little world. A shame, because there's a good two-hander in here, full of pithy comments on each man's art. That said, everyone else, including Adrian Scarborough as Donald/Carpenter and Stephen Wight as rent boy Stewart (pictured with Griffiths below), does take the actor's craft to its highest level.
I almost hesitate to mention the fact, since gender ought to be irrelevant but sadly still isn't, but last week saw a woman's triumph in a man's world. All the talk was of Barenboim's Beethoven/Schoenberg, which I certainly enjoyed, and of Osmo Vanska's Sibelius cycle, which I didn't. On Sunday Ashkenazy made sensitive work of Elgar's First Symphony with the Philharmonia. But the best concert of the clutch I attended was easily the one conducted by Susanna Malkki (pictured below by Tanja Ahola) at the Barbican.
The Arts Desk review of that BBC Symphony Orchestra spectacular is here; and what a totally satisying programme it was. Yesterday I had a chance, at Maida Vale, to hear the recording of Ravel's La Valse again (broadcast is set for later this month). So controlled yet playful, sensuous yet brutal; and the BBCSO sounds like the Berlin Philharmonic. What is it about Ravel that brings out the best in these northern conductors? I'd put Malkki's interpretation on a par with what Esa-Pekka Salonen did with the complete Ma mere l'oye and Bolero at the Proms. And I repeat, I don't think there has ever been a more ravishing orchestrator than Ravel in the history of music. Discuss.
On a par was a trip to Birmingham the following Tuesday - £110 day return after 3pm, thanks Virgin and apologies CBSO - to talk about Strauss's Alpensinfonie. Hence the wind-machine, thundersheet and Wagner tuba above, snapped while I was waiting for a souncheck. Again, there's an Arts Desk review of Andris Nelsons's performance, so I won't repeat myself, but it does seem miraculous, or just good judgement, that the CBSO has a third top-notch conductor, and such a naturally enthusiastic communicator. Here he is pictured by Richard Battye.
Mind you, there was all the difference in the world between Nelsons's rare bout of wild flailing on Strauss's Alpine summit, all for sweep and drive, and the preposterous ducking and diving of Osmo Vanska. My friend Cally got straight to the heart of what was wrong with his Sibelius Five: he bullies individuals rather than drawing the whole orchestra in with him. That means the whole falls into fussy details, some passages go awry (the deliberately out-of-synch meandering strings in the first movement fell into synch too soon) and climaxes don't really work. I'm not alone in feeling this, but I am in a minority. And I'm afraid it bears out the unspeakable epithet attached to Vanska by another distinguished Finn.