Our Classical Century, episode 2 review - this was music to stir the soul and television to nourish the mind

Suzy Klein and John Simpson - 2
Suzy Klein and John Simpson - 2

What sort of people were these, who felt more hungry for music than for their lunches?” So said museum director Kenneth Clark about the morale-boosting daily lunchtime concerts by pianist Myra Hess at the National Gallery in London. The answer was anyone seeking escapism, inspiration or solace. This second episode of four-part project Our Classical Century (BBC Four) explored music’s vital role in Britain’s resistance and resilience during the Second World War.

For this instalment, presenter Suzy Klein was joined by music-loving foreign correspondent John Simpson. Cream-suited Simpson was infectiously enthusiastic but it was Klein who stole the show: striding around purposefully in a selection of wrap dresses and jumpsuits, with a quizzically raised eyebrow and her formidable knowledge worn lightly.

After the tragic destruction of Queen’s Hall during the Blitz, the film charted the triumph of the first Prom in its new home of the Royal Albert Hall and the remarkable reception that greeted one of the pieces played: the debut performance of Shostakovich’s defiant Leningrad Symphony, written under siege and elaborately smuggled out of Russia via Iran to London.

The dramatic story was told through rare archive footage, evocative newsreel and eyewitness accounts. We were treated to several performances, too: standouts were tenor Stuart Skelton singing part of Benjamin’s Britten’s opera Peter Grimes and an audience of transfixed schoolchildren enjoying The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Even The Telegraph restaurant critic William Sitwell got in on the act, reciting his great-aunt Edith’s Façade through a megaphone.

With the documentary bookended by the coronations of George VI and Elizabeth II, both soundtracked by William Walton anthems, this was music to stir the soul and television to nourish the mind.