Review: a cocktail of Baltic and French

East and west London offer up some unusual venues for musical performance

A tale not quite of two cities, classical music in London has always been a rather lopsided affair. For a long while only the Barbican offered a lonely outpost beyond the historical strongholds of south and west, but with the opening of the King’s Place concert hall in Kings Cross and the growing cultural strength and diversity of East London, the map is slowly beginning to shift.

With a new season starting at the Petersham Playhouse, surely west London’s most beautiful boutique arts venue, and the return of the Spitalfields Music Festival to Shoreditch, this month has seen east and west London facing off in a serious battle for cultural supremacy

The annual Spitalfields Music Festival offers more than enough reason to venture beyond the Southbank, its churches, converted warehouses and municipal buildings reflecting the breadth of the programming. While experimental projects like Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison’s semi-improvised folk-opera Bow Down find a suitably edgy home in The Village Underground, more traditional programmes are housed in one of the area’s lovely galleried churches.

An evening of Baltic choral music from the Choir of Royal Holloway and the Britten Sinfonia threatened to strip the peeling paint from the walls of Shoreditch Church, so raw was its emotional delivery. Oxbridge chapel choirs have long had it all their own way, but under the direction of Rupert Gough, Royal Holloway have become a serious rival. Their chief strength is their musicality, balancing the dense, cluster-harmonies of this repertoire with the clarity that is essential if this deceptively simple music is to flower.

This precision, and the choir’s bass-anchored blend, were showcased beautifully in their opener – Vytautas Miskinis’s Time is Endless. There is a monumental, timeless quality to the music of this region, which while appealing but can lose its impact after too much exposure. Here we were saved from monotony by the syncopated rhythmic dissent of Rihards Dubra’s Oculus non vidit, and the fretful chromaticism of Arturs Maskats’s Lacrimosa.

A UK premiere – Tonu Korvits’s Kreek’s Notebook – offered the choir the chance to shape a larger-scale work, demanding the dynamic range and contrast that had been missing earlier. Folk-inspired, the work’s unmistakably Slavic melodies translate the region’s oppressive history into musical redemption, and made full use of Royal Holloway’s excellent lower voices – both mezzos and basses bringing depth to the palette. That the choir enjoys this repertoire is clear; that they understand its fragile directness is even more so.

From Baltic music in east London to French music in the west. Founded just last year, the Petersham Playhouse in Richmond has its home in the intimate grandeur of Petersham House’s ballroom. Growing swiftly, the Playhouse currently offers a quirky programme of both theatre and music, commissioning new works (such as opera Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions, stouring to Edinburgh this summer) and co-producing with venues that have included the Old Vic Tunnels.

To enter the playhouse you must first walk through a fantasy of a garden, flaming torches guiding the way. Every leafy nook is equipped with a bench, and every bench with a view. Making the most of this unique setting, Petersham Playhouse shows invite audiences into another world, working with their environment to create immersive, unapologetically lovely performances.

Devised and performed by pianist Martin Jacoby, Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water is just such a show. Part lecture and part concert, it offers a gently informative stroll through the lives and music of two of the greats of 20th century music. Personable and relaxed, Jacoby makes an excellent tour guide, sharing his own personal journeys with this music as well as its official histories. On our chronological trip we take in the stylistic movements of Modernism as well as the personal developments of the composers, with performances both of classic favourites and more obscure repertoire.

While Claire de Lune exposed Jacoby’s tendency to overstatement, distorting Debussy’s delicate melody with undue emphasis, the pianist soon relaxed his grip. A rendition of Ravel’s playful Jeau d’eau was all metallic sheen, brilliant in colour and appropriately throwaway in its wit, while the inscrutable melancholy of the composer’s Oiseaux tristes introduced softer shades and some nicely-balanced doubt to proceedings.

Discussing rivalries, ambitions, and working practices (Debussy’s easy facility contrasting with Ravel, ever the grafter) we made our way to a finale in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A challenge for even the most experienced concert pianists, it was a bold finish from the young Jacoby, who pulled off its three distinct moods with assurance, his passion for the music showing particularly in the Gothic chills of Le gibet.

We may not be in Proms season yet, but with such contrasting classical performances on offer, London audiences have no excuse not to escape the Olympic-crush of the centre this summer and explore their options, both to west and east. Patrician charm or indie musical chic – it’s your choice. 

Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water, with Petersham Playhouse/Choir of Royal Holloway & Britten Sinfonia, ran at Shoreditch Church until 23rd June.

Debussy & Ravel: Earth and Water. Image: Petersham Playhouse

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism