Lockdown Recommendations from Musicians: Pianist Charles Owen

Pianist Charles Owen talks us through the recordings, books and TV programmes that have been keeping him occupied during the coronavirus lockdown

Pianist Charles Owen

Musical recommendations:

The Vagabond: English songs by Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Finzi and Ireland
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

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Listening to this powerful disc by the extraordinary creative partnership of Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau has been a cathartic experience. The wide range of songs included conjure up a rich nostalgia whilst vividly evoking the beauty and loneliness of many English landscapes.

Having grown up in the rolling hills of Worcestershire, such poetry and music inevitably struck an extra resonant chord during my lockdown in North London.

Brahms: String Sextets, Op. 18 in B flat and Op. 36 in G
Amadeus Quartet, Cecil Aronowitz (viola) & William Pleeth (cello)

Throughout the mid 1980s, I was a student at the inspirational Yehudi Menuhin School where one of my greatest joys was listening to student friends playing these two glorious string sextets. There was an unforgettable quality of discovery as these highly gifted teenagers – now all seasoned pros – brought to life these masterful works by the youthful Brahms.

I’ve chosen the recording by the Amadeus Quartet with William Pleeth and Cecil Aronowitz for their sheer generosity of spirit and sonorous musical brush strokes. I feel fortunate indeed to have performed Brahms with the quartet’s leader Norbert Brainin and to have received many unforgettable lessons from the charismatic figure of cellist William Pleeth.

Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op. 64
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox  

Two of my most memorable recent live opera experiences have been those by English National Opera and Guildhall School of Music & Drama of Britten’s magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As with any masterpiece, musical or otherwise, this is an opera that demands to be revisited on many occasions. It is a hugely rich score, bursting with imagination, atmosphere and some of the most haunting music Britten ever wrote. The version from the early 1990s with a stellar cast under the presiding spirit of conductor Richard Hickox strikes me as utterly beguiling.

Book recommendations

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

This is an engrossing narrative, which weaves together complex layers of Russian history with a search for long-forgotten pianos hidden within the vast Siberian wilderness and its remote cities.

The fascinating encounters with hardy inhabitants and the often moving way in which they share their long-buried stories make this a truly uplifting book.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is such a profound writer on landscape, literature and history revealing so many unexpected layers in the process. All the travel adventures he describes here are absorbing and can encourage any reader to set off on their own mental journeys. A much needed and rewarding read particularly when grounded at home.

The Old Ways by Robert Mac

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Rereading The Bell reminds me what an imaginative genius Iris Murdoch was. Her storytelling and breathtaking use of prose remain vivid as she cunningly weaves a gripping tale of a secluded religious community attempting to turn their back on the burgeoning post-WWII world.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Chopin’s Piano by Paul Kildea

I’ve been practising a great deal of Chopin since lockdown. He is an endlessly challenging composer, the ultimate Romantic and one every pianist has to come to terms with either by fully embracing or completely ignoring his music.

This inspirational book by Paul Kildea has clearly been a labour of love for the author, meticulously researched and full of revelations about Chopin, his world and ongoing legacy. The book’s second part where the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska joins the narrative is truly gripping.

It’s a testament to great artists and their ability to overcome life’s challenges through the power of music.

Chopin's Piano – Paul Kildea

TV recommendation

Perfect Strangers (BBC DVD)

I’m a huge fan of Stephen Poliakoff’s atmospheric TV films with their epic narratives frequently traversing the generations. Perfect Strangers captivated me when it was first broadcast back in 2001 with an extended family narrative entwined in history. The exquisite filming, compelling performances and subtle use of light are spellbinding throughout.

Perfect S

Theatre screening

A Streetcar Named Desire (The Young Vic/NT LIVE)

Tennessee Williams has always been one of my absolute favourite writers. The stunning Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire held me in its grip as the tragedy of the complex family group plays out to its heart breaking conclusion. Gillian Anderson’s devastating portrayal of Blanche DuBois is seared into my memory.

It really was one of those unforgettable theatre nights, so generously offered to lockdown viewers by NT Live.

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Charles Owen is performing at the Fidelio Café in London in August as part of a new initiative to help musicians make money from performances. These performances will be open to limited audiences with controlled capacity. Tickets available here.