Remember when 2020 was going to be Beethoven year? There were going to be cycles and festivals, recordings and reappraisals; and if you weren’t actively promoting old Ludwig Van there was money to be made whinging about overkill. So was Stephen Hough’s decision to end his Wigmore Hall recital last Monday with Schumann’s Fantasie in C — a work conceived at least partly in homage to Beethoven, which opens with a fragmented musical landscape that Schumann at one point called ‘Ruins’ — a conscious reflection of the musical world’s changed circumstances? Or would that be reading too much into a situation in which a once-routine lunchtime concert suddenly feels like the musical event of the year?
I don’t think that’s overstating it — at least not if Twitter is any indication. Listeners were in tears; they’d had their radios on while making lunch, and found themselves transfixed. Comparisons with Myra Hess’s wartime concerts at the National Gallery did not seem absurd, once you discounted the possibility of aerial bombardment, and similar enthusiasm greeted the week’s remaining lunchtime concerts — all, likewise, broadcast live from the Wigmore Hall. The series continues at 1 p.m. on weekdays throughout the month, carried live on Radio Three and shown free of charge on the Hall’s own website, where you can witness the curious sight of great artists (we’re promised Roderick Williams, Alina Ibragimova, Iestyn Davies and Mitsuko Uchida, among others) giving their all to a solitary BBC presenter in a sea of claret upholstery. Expect future concerts to be greeted with much the same mixture of gratitude, rapture and undisguised relief.
And in fairness, it’s lovely stuff. Small-scale works take on new and surprising qualities when listened to with this level of concentration, as if the emotions are suddenly being presented in pop-up form. Schumann fared particularly well; not just in Hough’s defiant opening concert, but in a group of dryly named Canonic Études performed by the oboist Nicholas Daniel and the pianist Julius Drake on Thursday. Winsome melodies acquired a stinging payload of melancholy; rippling piano figuration slipped downwards through Drake’s fingers, and away into nothingness. To a non-German speaker, the Schumann songs that Lucy Crowe sang with the pianist Anna Tilbrook on Tuesday had a mute, pleading quality that was poignant in itself (though there’s surely a case for subtitles in future video relays).
The guitarist Sean Shibe finessed the art of music-making in isolation by playing Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint: in which multitracked pre-recorded tapes allow a single performer to create the illusion of 13 separate musical lines. Who knows how many previously sceptical Radio 3 listeners will have heard — that’s to say, really heard — Reich’s subtle play of sonorities for the first time? On video, Shibe could be seen alone in the hall, bent over his electric guitar as if in a trance. The pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, on the other hand, played Schubert and Brahms duets with an unstoppable, chromium-plated bravura that sounded as much fun on the radio as it looked on the screen. The presenter reassured us that they were housemates, and no quarantine restrictions were being broken. So there you go: it really is that simple. Classical music is saved.
Except it isn’t. It’s comprehensively screwed. For sure, coming after an 11-week drought these live broadcasts are morale boosters, and they’ll certainly have freshened up some jaded listening habits. There’s also comfort to be taken from this proof of just how much the idea of a live concert obviously signifies to many people. Our local parish church has been locked these past three months; a notice on the door offers pious bromides about the unimportance of mere buildings. But for those who seek their transcendence in concert halls, it’s never been more clear that venues such as the Wigmore Hall, with its smell of old carpet and Brasso, are deeply tied up with the meaning of music as a communal rite.
Let’s be clear, though: these are not public concerts, just premium-quality lockdown broadcasts from a smarter than usual studio, and I’d be worried if the idea took hold that they were anything more. No one has yet worked out how to get more than a handful of musicians on stage in the presence of sufficient paying audience members to cover the costs. Meanwhile Britain’s symphony orchestras are lying there in the background like Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs, paralysed and slowly bleeding to death. Crises can spur innovation; and I for one welcome our new entrepreneurial, improvisatory overlords. But not everything that’s worthwhile can survive in the wild. There might come a night when we’re standing with our plastic pint of BrewDog IPA, listening to amplified Ben Johnston quartets in a Dalston car park, only to be seized by a desperate longing to hear Brahms 4 or Petrushka. And then we’ll have a problem.