Social distancing had a major effect on orchestras’ lockdown repertoire. Unless you’re the Vienna Philharmonic, where regular Covid-testing right from the start negated distancing requirements, mighty Mahler and Bruckner symphonies were off the table, replaced by small scale works (or chamber reductions) with players spread across the platform or protected by Perspex shields. Cue works composed for just one section or classical symphonies that don’t require triple woodwinds and a massive percussion department.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Beethoven’s presence was always going to be felt – in his anniversary year, every orchestra seemed to announce its reawakening with the Fifth or Seventh Symphonies. But Ludwig aside, here is a very unscientific “top ten” pandemic playlist – those works which kept cropping up in our concert listings and reviews. And if there was one composer every orchestra turned to... it was Maurice Ravel.

1Ravel: Ma mère l’Oye

For the most programmed pandemic work, enter the fairytale world of Ravel’s Mother Goose, delighting online audiences with depictions of Tom Thumb and the Sleeping Beauty from Singapore to Cincinnati. Sir Simon Rattle loves it so much he conducted it with both the London Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras. The Jardin féerique finale is both uplifting and a bit of a tear-jerker.

2Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

One of the most famous musical birthday presents, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll proved perfect pandemic programming, especially as its original chamber format requires just 13 players. Even with a larger string ensemble, it’s an intimate work, tenderly played here by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic under Karina Canellakis [see review].

3Strauss: Metamorphosen

A study for just 23 solo strings, Metamorphosen was composed in the closing months of the Second World War (Strauss started composition the day after the bombing of the Wiener Staatsoper). Its elegiac mood seemed to offer a real sense of solace as orchestras played to empty concert halls.

4Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

As a conductor, if you weren’t programming Mother Goose, then you probably scheduled Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin instead. Composed for piano but orchestrated for small ensemble in 1919, with virtuosic writing for the oboe, it’s an homage to French Baroque style but it also has a more personal, poignant meaning, each movement being dedicated to the memory of one of Ravel’s friends who had died in the First World War. Paavo Järvi has conducted it twice in lockdown, here with the NDR Elbphilharmonieorchester [see review].

5Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

With his third entry in the top five, it’s Maurice Ravel again and his iridescent Piano Concerto in G major. Few have dashed off its outer movements with such panache as Martha Argerich who, in February, demonstrated that she’s still got it in this winning performance in Hamburg [see review].

6Schubert: Symphony in C major, “Great”

Want a big symphony for your lockdown orchestra? Limited space? Go for the “heavenly lengths” of Franz Schubert’s C major, not nicknamed the “Great” without good reason. It’s proven a favourite of veteran maestros – Zubin Mehta and Herbert Blomstedt have both conducted it three times since last summer. Blomstedt also sang much of it to me down the phone last December, so here he is in Hamburg. 

7Mozart: Serenade in B flat major, K.361, “Gran Partita”

The strings have their Metamorphosen spotlight, but the winds have the “Gran Partita”, one of Mozart’s most sublime compositions. Scored for 13 winds instruments (ok, 12 plus a double bass), it’s usually performed without a conductor, although social distancing requirements have made that more tricky. The Hong Kong Philharmonic winds are physically closer thanks to Perspex screens.

8Mozart: Symphony no. 41 in C major, K.551, “Jupiter”

No pandemic is going to keep Wolfgang Amadeus down! Here he is again with his final symphony, the “Jupiter”, with a lively performance by the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker and the irrepressible Ádám Fischer.

9Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

It’s back to strings in elegiac mode for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, much programmed by British orchestras or conductors. Here we get both, with the Philharmonia conducted by John Wilson in the haunting setting of Battersea Arts Centre, a venue ravaged by fire in 2015, but bearing its scars nobly [see review].

10Shchedrin: Carmen Suite

Who would have thought a noisy adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen would have its moment in the sun? But Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite – composed as a ballet starring his wife, Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya – only deploys a string section and five percussionists. Several orchestras have taken the opportunity to give their “kitchen sink” department a thorough workout, as here with the Orchestre National de France [see review].