In these untypical times, where the call and opportunity to revolutionise has never been greater, you’d expect Britain’s flagship classical radio station, BBC Radio 3, with its decades of resources and experience, to be at the forefront of creative change. But that wasn’t the impression given in the daily series of four lunchtime recitals broadcast live from the City Halls in Glasgow from 14-17 July, part of BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine initiative.
It was billed as Scotland’s answer to June’s Wigmore Hall series, but seemed instead, given the disappointing absence of the promised live video stream on the City Halls’ website, like a lazy alternative. Rather than a bold leap into the future, it felt like a make-do-and-mend version of the old status quo: a time-honoured audio broadcast given in a 1,200-seater hall, but minus the audience, and therefore void of the expectant buzz that usually characterises these live lunchtime broadcasts.I’d even have settled for the manufactured crowd noise now common in televised football matches. Instead, the emptiness that shrouded the delivery – the noticeable echo chamber of an empty hall and the inevitable tumbleweed moment as final chords gave way to pregnant silence – gave the whole series a sad air of detachment.
To their credit, the musicians did manage to create something that felt like heated engagement. The second performance in the series, pianist Steven Osborne’s lunchtime package of Schubert (****), had at its heart the questioning profundity of the late B flat Sonata, in which he created a genuine sense of interpretational risk. This was followed by the nuanced sensuality of a Gershwin encore – although an encore was something of a contrived concept given the absence of a cajoling crowd.But a player of Osborne’s calibre and experience has the confidence to connect as if nothing’s amiss, even in such a manufactured scenario. His opening F minor Impromptu, rich in lyrical warmth, prepared the ground for Schubert’s final sonata, its combination of intellectual probity and easeful simplicity conveyed with eloquent definition.
Enormous credit, too, to tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau (****) who hot-footed it to Glasgow following the last-minute call-off through illness of harpsichordist John Butt, who was due to accompany tenor Thomas Walker, to perform a refreshingly mixed and meaningful programme. It encompassed the comforting charm of Reynaldo Hahn’s A Chloris, the graceful fluidity of Josef Szulc’s Clair de Lune, Jonathan Dove’s raunchy Prandial Plaint, the inspired pairing of Britten songs with Glasgow-born Buxton Orr’s couthy Auld Mrs Murdy and the demure Shy Geordie, and much more besides.
The spun narrative, a personable sung essay structured in paragraph blocks, was enlivened by Spence’s beckoning charm, an intimacy warmly projected over the airwaves. Martineau’s mindful precision, meanwhile, illuminated the shifting moods of the music, from the quintessential Englishness of Roger Quilter, Thomas Dunhill and Frank Bridge, to the sentimental Broadway lilt of Stephen Sondheim.
Tuesday’s opening concert also focused on song, the young Scots bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, working with Julia Lynch on piano (***). It hit an impressive endpoint with Vaughan Williams’ substantial Songs of Travel, Mofidian finding a broader expressive vocabulary there than in the preceding songs of Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Ravel, where soft cadences had a tendency to sag in pitch.
Friday’s recital by percussionist Colin Currie (****) was effectively a one-man spectacular, given the description presenter Kate Molleson offered of a City Halls stage littered with the instrumental armoury necessary to facilitate this quick-fire programme of mainly contemporary works. If only we could have seen this one.
Currie opened with Fire over Water from Per Nørgård’s iconic I Ching for solo percussion, a spiritually intense journey from untuned primitivism to heightened exhilaration on tuned instruments, and back again. It set the scene for a programme embracing the marimba’s darkened resonances in music by Bryce Dessner and Kalevi Aho, which utilised Currie’s reject kitchenware in Kevin Volans’ Asanga, and which concluded with Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa (from his mammoth operatic project, Licht) and the pulsating energy of Xenakis’ Rebonds B.
At the very least, this series was an encouraging sign that the musical world is desperate to get back to performing live. With the ongoing restrictions in audience attendance likely to remain for some time, the broadcast organisations – mainly the public-funded BBC – have a key role to play in this. This is a golden opportunity to blow away the cobwebs and really freshen up their act. Maybe the current re-imagined Proms season will show that to be possible. We’ll be watching and listening. n
Radio 3’s Culture in Quarantine series from the City Halls, Glasgow is available on BBC Sounds for 30 days after original broadcast, www.bbc.uk/radio3
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