In the Critics this week

Evans on history lessons, Foreman on the Mediterranean and Gray on American diplomacy.

In the history special in the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Richard J Evans addresses Michael Gove's argument that the current National Curriculum in history should be replaced with a British-focused narrative. Evans replies that "blaming the curriculum is wrong" and "far from being in a state of terminal decay ... history in schools is actually a success story". He notes that there is a strong smell of "Tory Euro-scepticism" in the view that too little British history is taught in schools and argues that forcing children to learn about British kings and queens is "a quack remedy for a misdiagnosed complaint" that would end up putting students off studying the subject altogether.

In Books, Amanda Foreman reviews Robert Holland's Blue Water Empire: the British in the Mediterranean since 1800, noting the irony in the fact that "the country that has had the greatest influence on Mediterranean affairs for the past two centuries is now seeking immunity from the region". According to Foreman, the book, while heavy going, is "an important corrective to current historical amnesia" and one that will "remain the definitive account of Anglo-Mediterranean history for years to come".

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to historian Sir David Cannadine about his new book The Right Kind of History, which examines the teaching of history in English schools in the 20th century. Cannadine argues that the teaching of history is more controversial than the teaching of other subjects because there is no set global syllabus that people can follow. Of Michael Gove, Cannadine says: "I certainly hope that he thinks this book offers a lot of useful advice ... I am hoping it will persuade him that the major problem is that [history] needs to be made compulsory to the age of 16."

Also in the history special: John Gray reviews John Lewis Gaddis's new biography of George F Kennan and praises the book's ability to capture the complexity of Kennan's character, as well as his ultimate disillusionment with US foreign policy. Richard Overy is left disappointed byh Piers Paul Read's The Dreyfus Affair and David Herman reviews David Cesarani and Eric J Sundquist's new book Afterthe Holocaust.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey looks at the latest political biopics; Rachel Cooke shares her thoughts on BBC4's Jonathan Meades on France and Antonia Quirke discusses a new radio programme on the World Service. Plus: Sophie Elmhirst explains why a death festival is well worth a visit and Will Self on pizza.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.