In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Turner, Andrew Adonis on LBJ, John Gray on Victor Serge and Helen Lewis on the science of the breast.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our Critic at large is Craig Raine, who writes about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of late Turner, Monet and Twombly. The show, Raine argues, “passes the kleptomania test with ease. There are many, many works here that one would steal without compunction were theft possible with impunity.” Of Turner’s painting of the salute in Venice, Raine says “There is something candidly magical at work. The same applies to Monet.” As for Twombly, Raine maintains he is a “great painter, the equal of Turner and Monet”.

In Books, former Labour Cabinet minister Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson. This book, which deals with the first year of LBJ’s presidency, shows, Adonis writes, that “Lyndon Johnson left behind the second most substantial legacy of any US president of the 20th century, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. The “compass” of Johnson’s presidency was set, Adonis argues, within days of his assumption of it following the assassination of John F Kennedy. “Within weeks, its triumphs and its disasters were equally foretold.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews a new edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary; Guy Dammann on Soul Music by Candace Allen; Olivia Laing reviews Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’s Antigone; and Helen Lewis on Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Lynn Shelton’s slacker comedy Your Sister’s Sister; Rachel Cooke on Armando Ianucci’s Veep; “The many moods of Marilyn, à la Andy Warhol”, a poem by John Kinsella; Andrew Billen on The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre; Antonia Quirke on The Cave on Radio 4. PLUS: Will Self’s "Real Meals".

Power play: President Lyndon B Johnson in 1965 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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.