There have been times in the past week when the news has been so appalling – and when fury and despair have threatened to take over so completely – that I’ve gone scrambling in search of musical solace. Some of what I’ve enjoyed most has been at the distinctly homemade end of the spectrum: LPO double bassist Hugh Kluger’s breathtakingly luminous performance of the Prelude from JS Bach’s Cello Suite No 2, for instance, filmed at home in Australia (available via LPOnline). Or the 15th instalment of the Kanneh-Mason family livestream (via Facebook), in which the wobbly camera, cellist Sheku’s self-conscious introductions and the occasional maternal voice off-camera add to the charm of watching performances from the UK’s most famous musical family. In this episode it’s Rachmaninov’s song The Muse, arranged for cello and piano by Sheku and his pianist sister, Isata, that sticks in the mind: the cello as rich and lyrical as you could wish for, their musical partnership endlessly communicative.
Of course, there are innumerable more polished opportunities for musical escapism. I relished Angela Hewitt’s Kings Place performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 K482 with Aurora Orchestra conducted by Duncan Ward from December 2019 (available until 17 June) in this vein. The outer movements are stylish, if polite, the orchestra always light on its feet, Hewitt’s phrasing always graceful. The slow middle movement, though, is almost painfully beautiful: momentum gathers from a tentative opening to blossom slowly into warmth as Hewitt enters. This is music-making with an enviable, precious sense of unrestricted space. Best of all is Hewitt’s brief encore – the Gigue from JS Bach’s Partita No 1 – which is mesmerising and limpid: a reminder of her extraordinary command of Bach’s keyboard music.
Music’s distractions have rarely felt more necessary. But the stakes remain high – the politics of any musical performance inescapable – no matter how transcendent the sounds. Like so many, I was deeply moved by Stephen Hough’s recital inaugurating the season of special live broadcasts from Wigmore Hall and Radio 3. His Bach-Busoni Chaconne managed to be both monumental and intimate, his Schumann Fantasie impeccably poised, Hough in total control for its duration over time’s onward march. Yet I couldn’t forget hearing Wigmore Hall CEO John Gilhooly on Radio 4’s Front Row only days earlier, describing the new series as “a glimmer of hope” – but insisting that, while the Wigmore might be able to survive financially into next year, “others will go under in the next six to eight weeks”.
The danger, then, is that music – and the other performing arts – can be dismissed by those holding the public purse strings as nothing more than a “delightful reprieve”, dispensable at a time of global crisis. Opera North’s 2017 production of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti offers one obvious retort to that view: it’s a claustrophobic opera at the best of times (an unflinching portrait of a marriage on the rocks) and a seriously tough watch under lockdown. A performance this slick, this unbearably true-to-life, offers no escapist pleasure – rather it’s a bracing challenge to face the music.
Flora’s pick for the coming week
I still remember the emotional hangover left by Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in Keith Warner’s ultra-stark production at Glyndebourne in 2018 and can’t resist watching it again on operavision.eu (from 14 June). And I’ll also be watching Richard Jones’s staging of Puccini’s Il trittico at Royal Opera House (until 19 June), above all for Ermonela Jaho’s extraordinary debut as Suor Angelica.