For the past six months, live has largely meant livestreamed and concert-going has become an armchair pursuit. Like many, I’ve watched performances from other continents and even in purely virtual spaces – all while sitting at my desk. The increased access to performance has been extraordinary, but we have lost a sense of what music sounds like in a specific space.
This week, I’ve been yearning for live atmosphere. A concert by the Carducci Quartet as part of the Presteigne digital festival, for instance, had me by the throat. The premiere of Emma-Ruth Richards’ Tenebris Litterarum – all sinewy lines and tone colours clouded by mutes – was followed by a fearless, exhilarating performance of Janáček’s String Quartet No 2, “Intimate Letters”. However, the final all-Beethoven instalment of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Summer Sessions just didn’t do it for me. Although the Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op 16, and an early trio for piano, flute and bassoon were nicely done, the woodwind were so closely miked you could hear the constant mechanical clatter of instruments.
By contrast, the first night of this year’s live BBC Proms was a masterpiece of sound engineering – a triumph of technology over the empty Royal Albert Hall’s extravagant reverberations. With a reduced number of players spread metres apart across the vast stage, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony under Sakari Oramo was remarkable for its tightness and sheer musicality against the odds. The short works preceding it were imaginatively chosen: the world premiere of Hannah Kendall’s restless, colour-drenched Tuxedo: Vasco “de” Gama, plus Copland’s Quiet City and an immaculate performance by BBC Singers of Eric Whitacre’s unaccompanied choral favourite Sleep both making stunning use of the cathedral-like space. The empty arena glimpsed in the background made my stomach lurch but hearing the orchestra applaud the BBC Singers was a more heartening surprise. When no audience is present, though, the televisual presentation of performances becomes crucial. This Prom suffered from meandering commentary and hyperactive camera action, culminating in the orchestra seen only from behind at the end of their performance – surely the moment to see the musicians’ faces, to focus on their achievement in such extraordinary circumstances.
Frustrated, I left my desk to try Opera North’s newly commissioned Walking Home: Sound Journeys from Lockdown – pieces made to listen to as you walk. The strong rhythmic pulse of South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe’s Ulibambe made it the most straightforwardly enjoyable to move to, but I was also glad to lose myself in the delicate resonances of Maya Youssef’s Silver Lining for the qanun (Arabic zither). Martin Green’s A Place of Crisps and Pianos is sweetly, hauntingly gnomic.
The performance that has stayed with me, though, is Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen’s Met Stars Live in Concert recital with pianist James Baillieu (US$20, available until 9 September). Not every number works. Singing at Wagnerian full throttle, Davidsen simply sounds too robust to be about to expire, exhausted, in a desert as Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and Baillieu is strangely under-miked. But in the repertoire Davidsen does best – Wagner and Strauss, Grieg and Sibelius – her voice continues to astonish, generously expressive regardless of the distance from her listeners.
My picks for the week ahead
I’m excited about two concerts of contemporary music: London Sinfonietta’s appearance on Tuesday at the BBC Proms, including Steve Reich’s high-energy City Life, and Klangforum Wien’s concert on Friday spotlighting the gritty, ear-opening music of British composer Rebecca Saunders as part of Musikfest Berlin.