Sometimes only a good old cliché will do: balm for the soul; glimmer of hope; light at the end of the tunnel. All have seemed apposite in this first week of June as live musical performance has definitively begun to move out of musicians’ living rooms and Zoom screens and back into the concert hall and studio. True, some, such as the Bavarian State Opera, have kept small-scale music-making going all along with their song and chamber music “ghost concerts”. But among larger-scale outfits such as orchestras, radio ensembles have the advantage in this rebirth, being already attuned to performing under studio conditions to an audience that is distanced by default. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra led the way this week with a coupling of two works that showcased many of its musicians while still, unlike some orchestras elsewhere in continental Europe, eschewing the risks of bringing the whole ensemble together, let alone allowing even a sparsely spaced live audience in.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle


Broadcast from Bavarian Radio’s Studio 1 in Munich simultaneously on its BR Klassik radio station and in HD video via the orchestra’s website, the concert thus managed to combine the concept of a studio session with a public event. Simon Rattle, a regular guest with the BRSO for the past decade, chose two works that, symbolic of a new start, were the very same pieces that had opened his first two concerts as a conductor some 50 years ago, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Mozart’s Gran Partita K361.

Stage with distanced musicians
Stage with distanced musicians


The Vaughan Williams was played in the round, something impractical in most public music venues but which here solved both distancing and sonic requirements. Rattle, conducting without a score, stood in the centre, with the main string orchestra and soloists spaced around the main body of the studio and the smaller second orchestra standing, as were all musicians in the programme bar the cellists, on a raised platform behind him, though he turned to face this group as appropriate. The lush opening chords were aural balsam and there was a palpable sense of new life breaking forth as Tallis’s hymn tune stutteringly murmured itself into being – how appropriate that in his edition of this melody for The English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams had set it to Joseph Addison’s hymn “When, rising from the bed of death”. And the music does indeed rise skyward, here with Rattle taking his players – and listeners – on a journey that seemed to go even higher in a performance full of textural richness and ethereal harmonies.

Stefan Schilling (clarinet) and Bettina Faiss (clarinet)
Stefan Schilling (clarinet) and Bettina Faiss (clarinet)


Although billed as a live stream, this concert was more a case of “as live” – either that or we witnessed a miraculous bit of scene-shifting as the end of the Vaughan Williams segued into an interview with the conductor standing among the wind players already assembled for the Mozart Gran Partita. Rattle made the point that the configuration of the 13 musicians here gathered – 12 wind and a double bass – couldn’t have fitted with the same precautionary spacing on the stage of the orchestra’s usual home for public concerts, the Herkulessaal, a platform that only last year hosted concert performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre. It just shows how far we still have to go before “normal” concert-giving can resume.

Stage with distanced musicians
Stage with distanced musicians


Here, with musicians standing up to four metres apart one might have thought communication would be difficult, yet as with the Vaughan Williams, the spacing arguably even improved eye contact between the players and between them and the conductor compared with the traditional tight configuration on a concert stage. In any case, this was a glorious performance of Mozart’s grandest serenade. There were too many felicitous moments to mention, but the duetting pairs of clarinets and basset horns in the first trio of the first minuet were particularly enjoyable, and the melodic to-and-fro between oboe and clarinet in the Adagio was sublime. Rattle constantly reminded us in his choice of tempi and shaping of phrases how Mozart’s wind writing so often suggests operatic arias without voices, and his players did him proud. His mouthed bravo to them after the last chord had faded said it all.


This concert was reviewed from the live stream.

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