In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.

On record: Stephen Hough – Debussy: Piano Music (Hyperion)

Debussy Piano Music Stephen Hough (piano)

Debussy
Estampes (1903)
Images Set I (1905)
Images Set II (1907)
Children’s Corner (1906/8)
La plus que lente (1910)
L’isle joyeuse (1903/4)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This centenary-year collection from Stephen Hough takes in Debussy’s best-known suites for piano, simultaneously offering an ideal introduction to the composer’s music.

What’s the music like?

This disc is a great illustration of the strides Debussy made in piano music in the first decade of the 20th century. Starting with Estampes, Stephen Hough immediately shows the listener how the added note chords, elusive melodic figures and watery textures still create pictures of deep emotional substance. Every note counts with Debussy, and his music uses some particularly alluring chord progressions, creating pictures and moods unlike any composer of the day.

So too with both books of Images, the style further developed, while making more obvious references to the composers influential in Debussy’s development (the Hommage a Rameau for instance). The mood becomes more playful with Children’s Corner, much loved for its characterisations of infant toys. The Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is a big part of this, its winsome syncopations and catchy tune both reasons for its place as one of the composer’s best-loved pieces. It is a great example of a tricky piece made to sound simple.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Stephen Hough clearly loves these pieces; he knows just how he wants them to go, and in Children’s Corner he is not afraid to bring out the inner infant. Estampes and Images are richly coloured and commandingly played, the piano sound offering clean and precisely shaded pictures. Hough’s masterly command of the phrasing in La soirée dans Grenade is especially impressive, while Jardins sons la pluie is also brilliantly played.

The Images are lovely. Reflets d’ans l’eau melts under Hough’s soft touch, while Mouvements shows off the technical ability he has in spades, with flawless octave playing giving clarity above the whirl of notes beneath. By contrast Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is exquisitely restrained, Hough paying particular attention to the colour realised in his slow picture painting.

The addition of short pieces La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse offer great space and colour, the icing on the cake of this recital.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If Debussy’s piano music is new to you, let this be the way in. If it is already familiar then these interpretations will bring it to life once more, exploring the composer’s love of the dance and also his ability to create sounds and textures placing the piano in a whole new context. Buy it and be transported away.

On record: Stephen Hough plays Scriabin & Janáček: Sonatas & Poems

stephen-hough

Two of the giants of the piano from the twentieth century lock horns in Stephen Hough’s newest release for Hyperion – which actually brings together recordings made in 2011 and 2013. Scriabin and Janáček complement each other as they both explore rich variants of tonal writing – and in Scriabin’s case, leave tonality altogether.

What’s the music like?

Alexander Scriabin has an output almost entirely based around the piano, which became his primary means of expression. Within that, Scriabin seems to have loved the black keys and in particular F sharp, around which many of his works are centred. The Piano Sonata no.4 and Piano Sonata no.5 both reside in that key, although both make frequent and increasingly exotic bids for freedom, part of the mystical style the composer was working towards.

In Vers la Flamme (Towards the Flame) he reaches his goal, making a complete break with tonality in music that seems to be flying through the air – apt, really, as Scriabin believed in the concept of levitation. Here he conveys it in musical form.

By contrast the piano music of Leoš Janáček has a remote but incredibly intense form of intimacy that can at times be truly disconcerting. The music of Book I of On an Overgrown Path is fraught with anxiety but also has astonishing power, and it has eerie premonitions of death – the fate tragically befalling the composer’s daughter Olga, who lost her life to typhoid in 1903.

The Piano Sonata ‘1.X.1905, From the street’ has an equally tragic genesis, and would have been lost completely had the pianist Ludmila Tucková not copied two of its movements before Janáček lobbed them into the Vltava river. The date is that of the death of Frantisek Pavlík, a Moravian carpenter killed by Austrian forces for his support of a Czech-speaking university.

Does it all work?

Yes. Stephen Hough gets right inside the worlds of these two differing but complementary composers. He gives a frankly astonishing account of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no.5, notable for its total technical command. This can also be applied to Vers la Flamme, where the fiendish trills reveal a work right on the edge.

Meanwhile the Janáček works thrive on the same levels of clarity, and the vivid picture painting in a piece such as The barn owl has not flown away!, from On an Overgrown Path Book I, lingers long in the memory. Meanwhile the latent anger in the Sonata is undimmed.

Is it recommended?

Without reservation. Stephen Hough is a superb pianist and musician, and plays these works with a command and clarity beyond the reach of most pianists.

Listen

You can get a preview of each track from this disc on the Hyperion website