Tuesday 2 June 2020

Live music returns to the Wigmore Hall: Stephen Hough in Bach/Busoni and Schumann

Stephen Hough at the Wigmore Hall (taken from live stream of Hough's concert on 1 June 2020)
Stephen Hough at the Wigmore Hall
(taken from live stream of Hough's concert on 1 June 2020)
Bach/Busoni, Schumann; Stephen Hough; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 June 2020
Live music returns to the Wigmore Hall, albeit without an audience, starting with Stephen Hough in two works with intriguing commemorative links

It was lovely to be able to experience live music from the Wigmore Hall again yesterday (1 June 2020) when BBC Radio 3 started its month of live concerts from the empty hall. Pianist Stephen Hough launched things with a programme of Ferruccio Busoni's version of the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 (originally for unaccompanied violin), and Robert Schumann's Fantasie in C, Op. 17; and the two had works both had a fascinating commemorative quality. Busoni himself performed the Chaconne at the opening concerts of the Wigmore Hall (which opened in 1901 as the Bechstein Hall), and Schumann wrote his Fantasie in support of Liszt's appeal to create a statue of Beethoven in Bonn.

Busoni edited a great deal of Bach's music, but he also transcribed it and arranged it, so that his versions of Bach exist on a continuum from the discreet edition to the radical new versions. His 1893 version of the solo violin Chaconne reinvents Bach's music for piano, and this is very much the piano of Busoni's time. We hear Bach's music filtered through Busoni's own ears; we never lose sight of Bach but the violin line is presented in a context which is Busoni's own. I was first introduced to the work in the 1980s (at a time when it was deeply unfashionable) when I heard the great pianist/composer Ronald Stevenson perform it a number of times. Stevenson was a great admirer of Busoni, and Stevenson's pianism was very much in the tradition of the late 19th and early 20th century virtuoso [for those interested a live recording of Stevenson in the work, made in 1976, is available on Amazon].
Stephen Hough took a more classical view of the work, his opening was sombre and sonorous with striking use of articulation. Throughout the work, I was struck by the sense of line that Hough brought to the piece, and by the clarity he gave the structures, which almost seemed to belie Busoni's rich harmonies. But there were dazzling moments too, flashes of bravura but Hough was never bombastic, and for all the resonant virtuosity of the conclusion, what I took away was the poised, thoughtful nature of much of the performance and the sense of classical clarity Hough brought to this great romantic warhorse.

In 1836, Schumann wrote a piece called Ruines which expressed his distress as being forced to be parted from his beloved Clara (whose father had forbidden their marriage). Later in the year he wrote two further movements, and intended the work as a contribution to Franz Liszt's campaign to get a statue of Beethoven erected in Bonn (Beethoven's birthplace). The intention was that copies should be sold in aid of the fund, and other contributions included Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses.

In 1836, Schumann intended the title to be Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen, Grosse Sonate f.d. Piano f. Für Beethovens Denkmal, but the original publisher refused the work and by the time it was published in 1839 it was a three-movement work called simply Fantasie, dedicated to Liszt. It is an astonishing, taxing piece, Liszt was one of the few contemporary pianists capable of playing it and Schumann's wife Clara did not start playing it in public until 1866, ten years after the composer's death.

Hough's opening movement was fluid and rhapsodic, bringing out the rhetorical nature of much of the music, poetic and thoughtful. By contrast the second movement started brisk and outdoorsy, with a nice swagger, though getting more intimate, and in the finale he brought both poetry and superb technique to the work's delicate filigree writing. It is an astonishing work, which seems to take little account of the limitations of the keyboard, and to represent Schumann's ultimate fantasy.

Despite there being no audience to react, there was an encore, a further Bach transcription, this time Charles Gounod's Meditation sur le 1er prelude de Bach (better known as his Ave Maria)

The concert is available on BBC Sounds, and available to stream from the Wigmore Hall website.

The live from Wigmore Hall series continues each weekday lunchtime during June.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Adventures on the Green Hill: with no Bayreuth Festival this year, Tony Cooper looks back at previous festivals - feature article
  • Thaïs: Massenet's lyric drama gets a rare outing on disc in a stylish performance with Canadian forces conducted by Sir Andrew Davis - CD review
  • Uncompromising large-scale drama: composer and performers on thrilling form in Adès conducts Adès from Deutsche Grammophon - CD review
  • A disc that I never wanted to end: Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe displays clarity, structure and an innate sense of elegance in Bach's solo lute music on Delphian - CD review
  • Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua - A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint - CD review
  • Tracing a youthful relationship: Tony Cooper looks at Britten's links to Norfolk & the city of Norwich - CD review
  • Clouds, Clocks and Improvisation: I chat to composer & pianist Karol Beffa about the separate but related acts of improvisation & composition - interview
  • Essential listening for anyone interested in Estonian music: Vox Clamantis' profoundly beautiful account of the music of Cyrillus Kreek, The suspended harp of Babel - CD review
  • Music for concentrated and serious listening: Piers Hellawell's Up by the Roots on Delphian - CD review
  • Going out of their comfort zone: David Nebel and Kristjan Järvi in violin concertos by Philip Glass and Igor Stravinsky - cd review
  • In search of Bach and Handel, and Mendelssohn too: Baroque music aficionado, Tony Cooper, travels to Leipzig and Halle - feature article
  • 'Home

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