Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My parents foremost – there was music around the house at all times, and my mother had a beautiful voice and sang often with my father accompanying. Then my first teacher, from age 5, Barbara Boissard. Then Kathleen Long, a natural pianist and musician with a beautiful sound. I stayed with her until I was 12 when I went to study at the Paris Conservatoire for 6 years. By then my mind was firmly made up – but these people were good early influences who would have helped my resolve to be a musician grow. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

In my younger years, there was an injury or two which involved some important last minute cancellations, which I hated being obliged to do. You have to keep faith that you will heal completely, which of course I did. However emerging from the pandemic is really challenging – planning impossible and great flexibility needed, as well as zen-like qualities. 

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud? 

It depends on which period of my life. The Philips recordings of Lieder with Wolfgang Holzmair were very special for me. As were the Schubert Live recordings from South Bank Centre a little over a decade ago. They were tough days, the rehearsal was recorded, as was the concert, with a patch session until late into the night. Each was a real marathon. 

But my set of recordings for Chandos have been, still are, a wonderful journey – all done at the amazing Snape Maltings with an excellent team. I have a particular fondness for the Liszt/Wagner recording, as well as for the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and “Iberia y Francia” , a lovely mix of French and Spanish masterpieces, large and small. 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best? 

It’s not really for me to say. I don’t take up any work if I am not 150% convinced by it, and feel that I have something really personal to express through a piece. I guess that Schubert and Schumann are particularly close to me. 

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage? 

Get away from music! Read, be in the great outdoors, preferably walking..

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Dominated either by practicalities (recordings, requests from promoters, festival themes) or, simply by a movement of the heart that impels me to such and such a composer..

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

There are so many. The Wigmore Hall is particularly dear to me as to so many of us – but also Spivey Hall near Atlanta GA in the US, Severance Hall in Cleveland, the Recital Hall in Melbourne, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam…I hate to leave any out, but am obliged to!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I would like to think that the amount of filming of concerts on the web during the pandemic, and their easy availability, might entice new audience members when venues open up more. If only newly interested viewers could realise what an even richer experience it is sitting in a hall sharing an amazing musical experience with others – the synergy between platform and audience…There is honestly nothing like it.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One was certainly the first time I played the last three Schubert Sonatas together in one concert, a marathon if ever there was one. It was in the hall at Westminster School, on a freezing cold night – a packed audience sat huddled up in their coats and listening so attentively. It was a two hours-and-ten concert, and I was like a rag doll at the end, but proud to have stayed the course..

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

When I see that the music for which I have been a vessel has really reached the depths of people’s hearts and souls and that they are the better, or the wiser, for it. It is like speaking a message that has been clearly heard. If music-making is not about that, then for me it is not about anything. This has nothing to do with commercial success which is another story. 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Be humble about your ambition, whilst keeping your vision and goals clear. Be patient. And work work work – it is never enough. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years? 

Alive!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Walking in the Italian countryside in spring, with the prospect of a simple meal with friends at the end of the day. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

My house and garden.

What is your present state of mind? 

Sane, mostly. 

Imogen Cooper performs at this year’s Petworth Festival on 24 July, playing music by Schubert, Liszt and Brahms. More information/tickets


Regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, Imogen Cooper is internationally renowned for her virtuosity and lyricism. Recent and future concerto performances include the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, Sydney Symphony with Simone Young and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ryan Wigglesworth.

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(Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke/Askonas Holt)

034571282602‘Vida Breve’ (Short Life) – Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion CDA68260)

It seems fitting that Stephen Hough’s new album ‘Vida Breve’, featuring music on the theme of death, should be released while we are still in the thrall of the coronavirus. But this album is not a response to the pandemic and was in fact conceived and recorded long before any of us had heard of coronavirus or COVID-19.

Yet its theme is highly relevant to our Corona times when death dominates the news, from the daily tally of COVID deaths and grim predictions from scientific and medical experts. Despite this, as Stephen Hough says in the CD’s liner notes, we are still reluctant to talk about death, a reluctance which has increased over the past 50-odd years during which medical science has made it possible for people survive better and for longer and has led to a greater disassociation from and hyper-sensitivity to discussions about death.

For artists, writers and composers death has always been a central preoccupation, resulting in some of the most extraordinary, exultant and emotionally profound expression in painting, literature and music – amply demonstrated in the works on Hough’s new album. In the nineteenth century people were far closer to death than we are today, and for Chopin (whose short life was dogged by ill-health), Liszt and Busoni, composers whose music is included on this CD, death was understood and accepted as part of the natural course of life.

As a Catholic, I suspect Stephen Hough has a fairly robust attitude towards death, perhaps more closely aligned to that of the composers featured on his new disc (and remember Liszt was a devout Catholic). Hough’s faith teaches us not to fear death but to accept it as the only certainty in life, and his own piano sonata ‘Vida Breve’, the work which lends its title to the disc, explores the brevity of life, a reminder that our allocated time is short. An abstract, introspective work constructed of five tiny motivic cells, which interact contrapuntally and include a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet, ‘Vida Breve’ lasts a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil.

Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita opens this recording, in Busoni’s glorious, romantic transcription for solo piano. This epic cathedral of sound is an awe-inspiring, emphatic opener (Hough played it at his Wigmore Hall livestream concert in June 2020), and here Hough gives it an authoritative, multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. It’s opening is dark and sombre, yet the processional nature of this piece, with its sense of building, dying back, then increasing again, brings a remarkably uplifting atmosphere to this music, and of course its final cadence, a Picardy Third, ensures that it closes with a clear sense of positivity.

After the towering majesty of the Chaconne, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is fleet and turbulent, its anxious intensity tempered when Hough lingers over the more lyrical Nocturne-like passages in the opening movement and the Scherzo, or when he allows the essential nobility of the music to shine through over disruptive bass motifs. Like the Chaconne, the famous Marche funèbre is magisterial rather than simply funereal, while the tender, dreamy middle section lends an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme return.

In addition to the thematic associations between the pieces, there are musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne are reiterated in the Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominates, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure is later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles, to which Hough brings an ominous darkness, its slow-march meter suggesting the dead weight of a bier on the shoulders who carry it, before a more reflective, wistful section. The other piece by Liszt, the Bagatelle Sans Tonalité, is a musical gargoyle with its wayward harmonic language and grimacing, dancing rhythms.

The remaining works on the disc are encores of a sort – a reminder that this final recital is not quite over….. Busoni’s Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen uses familiar melodies and motifs from Bizet’s opera and transforms them into a witty concert piece, to which Hough brings a warm romanticism. His own transcription of Arirang, a traditional Korean folksong, is gentle and contemplative, its lyrical melody singing out over a flowing accompaniment. It leads naturally into Gounod’s recasting of Bach’s Prelude in C into Ave Maria (also transcribed by Hough), a popular work at funerals, perhaps because it is both perfect music for the transit to the afterlife and for reflections on life and the inevitability of its end. Death, now where is thy sting?

This album is masterly is its programming; stimulating and provocative, it’s a superb recital disc and, being Hough, the music is thoughtfully chosen and impeccably played.

Highly recommended

FW


‘Vida Breve’ is released by Hyperion on 29 January 2021. 

This review first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist site

Piano music commissioned and recorded during lockdown to support musicians struggling during the Covid-19 crisis

There have been many initiatives to keep the music playing and support musicians during these difficult times. What all of these initiatives demonstrate is that musicians are, despite straitened circumstances, determined to keep playing and to continue to share their music with audiences. It also sends a powerful message to government that the industry is determined to survive, to let the music play, come what may.

I have a personal interest in this wonderful project by pianist Duncan Honeybourne: Duncan and I are friends, and also colleagues – together we run a lunchtime concert series in Weymouth.

During the UK lockdown, Duncan decided to offer short video recitals from his home every day. He called them ‘Piano Soundbites’. The series proved very popular and within a few weeks, Duncan had the idea to approach composers to ask them to write new piano pieces for him, to be premiered as ‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’ in his video recitals. Alongside this, Duncan set up a Just Giving page to raise funds for Help Musicians UK (formerly the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund). The response was incredible – the project, which was ranked in the top 10% of Just Giving fundraisers nationally during April 2020, has already raised well over £2000 for Help Musicians UK, supporting musician colleagues struggling in the current situation.

‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’ celebrates the diversity of styles embraced by a broad cross-section of professional composers working today. Featured composers include Sadie Harrison, Graham Fitkin, John McLeod, David Lancaster, Francis Pott, Luke Whitlock and John Casken, as well as younger and emerging composers, and each piece is no more than 6 minutes long at the most. These piano miniatures represent an important contribution to the ever-expanding repertoire for the instrument, to be enjoyed by amateur, professional and student pianists alike.

pianist Duncan Honeybourne

“….it was an invigorating experience to record an entire disc of pieces which hadn’t existed less than four months earlier! Especially stimulating and exciting is the juxtaposition of several leading senior composers with some of their most gifted younger colleagues. Several young composers make their first appearances on disc.

My objective, as I stated in my invitation to composers, was fourfold: to imaginatively harness the zeitgeist of our present situation: to bring comfort and enjoyment to a large ready-made audience stuck at home, to aid musicians badly affected by the “cultural lockdown” and to add to the contemporary repertoire, creating an artistic keepsake of this extraordinary phase in our history.

My long term plan is that, as well as helping our colleagues at a time of need, the collection will provide a snapshot of reflections and musings by some of the finest and most distinctive composers of our time at a unique and unprecedented moment in our history. I hope the disc will make for a refreshing, enriching, stimulating and quirky listening experience too!”
Duncan Honeybourne, September 2020

The music was recorded in late July 2020 in the new Gransden Hall at Sherborne Girls School, Dorset.

The disc is released on the Prima Facie label and is available to order now

For review copies, sample tracks, interviews with Duncan and other press information please contact Frances Wilson


Meet the Artist interview with Duncan Honeybourne


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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I grew up in a strict religious household, so when an upright piano – a gift from a church member – arrived at our house it was just a large and welcome new toy to play with. My parents had somewhat draconian views on children’s entertainment; consequently we had no television and only really listened to classical music. There are of course pros as well as cons in this approach but…

Thus, at the age of four years old, I (apparently) began to pick out tunes with one finger and it was quickly decided I should have lessons. These were kindly donated at no charge by the church organist, one Marion Mills. Although I had many kind and patient teachers over the years, Peter Crozier at Pimlico Saturday school, Peter Jacobs at Latymer Upper School and lastly John Irving and Danielle Salomon at Sheffield University, what truly inspired me to take up a career in music was being allowed to arrange for and direct the band in school shows.

Our school Christmas spectaculars, essentially lavish pantomimes, really were worthy of the ‘spectacular’ tag, played out to a paying audience of several hundred in our large school hall, brilliantly converted into a theatre. To allow a 16-year-old to run a 20 piece band for the shows while he sat in the audience was quite a display of faith from our brilliant head of music – Shane Fletcher; so if I had to nominate one person as an inspiration it would be that light touch teaching that secured my fate!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I’ve already mentioned many of the teachers who mostly looked kindly on my endless desire to improvise and managed in spite of that to instil the rudiments of a proper musical education into me! Being raised with the perpetual backdrop of classical music gave me a sound knowledge of most of the repertoire but a seminal moment was when my parents finally yielded to my sister’s and my cajolings and bought a small portable black-and-white TV when I was thirteen. One of the first things I watched entranced, after my parents had gone to bed, was a late night BBC2 show with Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. I was literally open mouthed (and eared). I had never known a piano could make sounds like this, much less that somebody could forge a career playing music other than Chopin! I obsessively hunted down all the jazz I could find and along the way discovered the cabaret genius of musical comedians such as Dudley Moore and Victor Borge (who also showed me that it was possible to make people howl with laughter using classical references). I can’t miss out other names such as Richard Rodgers, Bill Evans, Art Tatum and Fats Waller and the wit of French impressionists such as Satie and Milhaud.

Lastly, although not directly musical influences, I must also mention two performers that I worked with for over a decade. A large part of being a cabaret artist is one’s ability to recount stories and give context to the music on stage, an area in which I was resoundingly absent of talent. A brilliant performer I accompanied for fifteen years was a singer called James Biddlecombe (Biddie). Described as the uncrowned king of the cabaret scene in London, he championed obscure old songs that nobody had heard of and to this day I have never witnessed an audience in such paroxysms of tearful mirth as he managed to regularly engender. Watching him and another act, larger than life magician Fay Presto, beloved of royals and celebrities, whom I also accompanied for many many years, I slowly and painfully learnt how to communicate on stage.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Being an improviser with a classical sensibility, I often find myself on the same programme as truly jaw-dropping international concert talent. Keeping one’s self together in such exalted company is a trick in itself. They are without exception always kind and express admiration for what I do but knowing just enough to know quite how brilliant they are really can be enough to freeze the blood in one’s veins. The first time I went on Radio 3 taking live requests to play anything in any composer’s style, I was literally shaking. Recounting this to a friend afterwards he asked innocently “Why were you so worried? There’s only one man and his dog listening to Radio 3 at any given time.” Patiently I had to explain to him “Yes, but even the dog has a doctorate in ethno-musicology”.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I have recorded two albums – ‘In the wrong key’ and ‘All the way through’ – both of which I regard reasonably proudly, but my output will never be judged by recordings. My proudest moments are getting on a really good roll in an improvised Bach invention or during something very silly like Postman Pat in the style of Rachmaninov, hearing the audience reaction change from laughter to engagement as you fuse low and high art and for a few glorious seconds it comes off and becomes an entity of its own. Audiences always know those rare and special moments when you channel something perfectly in a composer’s style for a brief moment. You don’t have to explain it.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

What is your most memorable concert experience?

If I may take the liberty of combining these four questions… To explain: these questions fall into a different category for myself compared to a classical performer. Performances with Alexander Armstrong where I was musical director and arranger linger fondly in the memory, particularly one at the Palladium. Also an end of year review playing solo cabaret to a packed Birmingham Symphony Hall for Raymond Gubbay was a wonderful experience. My favourite performance and venue are probably one and the same – a charity gala at the Royal Albert Hall for SOS villages, an organisation working against the spread of AIDS in Africa. That venue is a seminal one for me – redolent with so many memories from my introductions to the Proms with my parents. The fact that they were sat in the front row whilst I took the host’s Aled Jones request to play Kylie Minogue ‘I should be so lucky’ in the style of Wagner (only request I can remember) and the consequent laughter echoing around the Albert Hall is something I shall never forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Ultimately, music is all about communicating emotion. There are many different ways of doing this – interpreting the works of geniuses who have gone before in a respectful yet original way and profoundly moving all those that hear it is of course the most prevalent. However, I feel there is a space to play with all those references that audiences know so well and juxtapose them in a comical fashion. Although this is light entertainment, most of the time people sense when the fun is borne of a true love of the music and in amongst the laughter and silliness there is beauty too. So my definition of success is simply to bring joy to as many people as possible.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To show young students that improvisation is not a modern phenomenon or something to be scared of. It should absolutely be taught alongside all other musical knowledge – the principles therein are as old as the hills; Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were all serial improvisers. It is my life’s mission to get some aspect of improvising onto the national curriculum as I passionately believe it improves listening skills, time, arranging and composing and the relation with one’s instrument!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

It’s a toss up between one of these three (if you can have a three sided coin…!)

1. Walking around the Borghese gallery in Rome.

2. Watching James Anderson destroy an Australian batting lineup at Lord’s.

3. Tucking into a particularly juicy Times cryptic crossword with Eugenie Onegin on in the background.


Harry’s extraordinary talent and breathtaking creativity have earned him a reputation as one of the most gifted improvising pianists in the world. Celebrities and critics alike have lined up to shower him with praise often smacking of astonishment. No other musician can spontaneously reinvent Michael Jackson in the style of Mozart, recreate a night at the Groucho club through the TV themes of its actor members, and improvise a seamless medley of audience requests ranging from James Bond to Shostakovich via West Side Story.

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Pianist Emmanual Vass was one of the first interviewees in the Meet the Artist series, back in 2012. Now, 8 years on, to coincide with the release of his third album, Manny has updated his interview to reflect on his influences and inspirations, and his career path to date and beyond…


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

All my life, I wanted to connect with people, and be creative. As mentioned in my first interview 8 years ago, I started playing piano by complete chance, and it has always been my outlet and my joy. Pursuing a musical career made complete sense; it still does now, aged 31!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Picking myself up, and getting back on my horse after having been knocked off yet again. I wasn’t quite prepared for how much rejection, “no” answers, and unsuccessful attempts I’d face as an artist. It’s definitely easier as I get older, thankfully. Perspective is important.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My third album, “The Naked Pianist” released 19th June 2020 is by far my best recording to date. I’m really proud of it because I sound the best I have ever sounded, and the mix of pieces are very well suited to me: you’ve got the big guns from composers such as Chopin and Rachmaninov; popular classics by Beethoven and Debussy, and I’ve also included 3 of my original compositions which I’m sure listeners will love.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Bach and Debussy, but for opposing reasons! Funnily, I’ve just seen that I answered Bach 8 years ago, too. I’m clearly obsessed with him.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I’ve become fascinated by cosmology and astronomy; it’s absolutely mind-boggling! There are at least 50 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way, then at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable Universe! Here we are, little old earth, with intelligent, sentient life that wants to create and express. Utterly inspirational!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

“What do I want to play, and what might audiences like to hear from me?”

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

No – as per my original answer 8 years ago: anywhere with a half-decent piano.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

In 6 words: continue spreading the joy and love.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I love watching amateur concerts; they really inspire me. The word “amateur” comes from the verb “to love”, and it’s always a joy to watch other human beings be creative purely for the love of the music and the instrument.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To feel happy and fulfilled.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I say this regularly as part of my role as a lecturer: being a 21st Century musician is incredibly different and contrasting to past generations of musicians. We no longer live in the, “Beethoven sonata + tailcoat = money”, or the, “Orchestral excerpts + audition = job for life” age. Arguably, we never really did!

Did I ever imagine myself doing two UK reality TV shows as part of my career? No. Did I think I’d own a record label, from which I am to self-release my 3rd album? Certainly not. Did I ever envisage discussions with talent executives about some potential TV/radio presenting opportunities? Never. But alas, welcome to life as a 21st Century musician! I tell you what though, I’m happy, thriving, and thoroughly enjoying my life. I can’t ask for much more!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

This is a particularly poignant question for me right now! I’m 31, and incredibly happy with where I am in life overall. I’ve recently appeared in two huge reality TV shows here in the UK: Britain’s Got Talent and First Dates Hotel both aired in May 2020. There’s a bigger picture/purpose for me doing these shows.

All I’ll say is dear Emmanuel Vass, aged 41, I hope it’s all worked out in the end, dude! And if it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end, is it…?!

Emmanuel Vass’ third album The Naked Pianist is released on 19 June.

More information


A Yorkshire lad who has performed for the Prince of Monaco; crowdfunded a #1 album, broadcast on ClassicFM, BBC World Service, and BBC Radio 3, and featured extensively across 30 countries. He became a senior lecturer at just 28 years old…

Named as ‘one to watch’ by The Independent newspaper, ‘rising star’ by BBC Music magazine, and ‘unsigned artist of the month’ by Yamaha, thirty year old Emmanuel Vass has established himself as, ‘one of the most charismatic pianists on the contemporary scene’, according to the Mail on Sunday.

Following a successful crowd funding campaign which ended at 165%, Manny self-released his 2nd album, Sonic Waves, an album of water themed classical music, and his own arrangements of traditional, British sea shanties. Following broadcasts on ClassicFM, BBC Radio 3, and BBC World Service, the album reached #1 in the UK specialist classical charts; spent a month within the top 10, and featured across national print media in Attitude magazine, and Cheshire Life magazine.

His first CD, From Bach to Bond, and Sonic Waves CDs and tour titles reflect both Manny’s eclectic taste in music and his versatility as a pianist. He is as at ease with the challenges of Bach as with the demanding pianistic technique required for his own arrangements – in the manner of Liszt – of the James Bond theme, traditional sea shanties, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

This supreme versatility is also revealed in the calibre and variety of his recent engagements. Manny’s busy performance diary has included The Bridgewater Hall (Manchester); Edinburgh Fringe, Sheffield Cathedral, the Welcome to Asia festival, Castle Howard, and Hexham Abbey, as well as at the prestigious London venues Steinway Hall, Queen’s Theatre West End, Kensington Palace Gardens, 1901 Arts Club Waterloo, St Lawrence Jewry, and St James’s Piccadilly.

He has performed for Lord Levy and the Russian ambassador in the Golden Room in Kensington Palace Gardens, for the Filipino ambassador at St. Sepulchre’s Church London, and for the French ambassador at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. At the Variety Club Jubilee Ball he played for the Prince and Princess of Monaco on the same programme as international artists The Manfreds, the boy band Blake, and Lulu.

Manny is a qualified, award-winning educator. He was a senior lecturer at Leeds College of Music in music business; marketing, and e-commerce. Here, he was nominated for “most innovative”, and “best feedback” awards, and won “most inspirational” in 2017.

Emmanuel now lectures at both the University of Liverpool, and BIMM Manchester. He frequently gives guest lectures and talks across the UK and internationally; most recently at Music and Drama Expo 2017 (London), the BSME Arts conference (Dubai), Reeperbahn Hamburg, and the Norwegian Academy of Music (Oslo).

Emmanuel Vass was born in Manila, Philippines and grew up in East Yorkshire. Having passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of 15, he subsequently studied with Robert Markham at Yorkshire Young Musicians, a centre for the advanced training for gifted young musicians. This was followed by four years at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Manny studied with John Gough, and was supported by scholarships from the Leverhulme Scholarship Trust and the Sir John Manduell Scholarship Trust. He graduated in 2011

Wigmore Hall/BBC Radio 3 Special Broadcast series

JS Bach, arr. Busoni Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004 Schumann Fantasie in C, Op 17

Charles‐François Gounod – Meditation sur le 1er prelude de Bach (encore)

Stephen Hough, piano

Monday 1 June 2020


I admit I welled up as Stephen Hough played the opening measures of the Bach D minor Chaconne, transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni. Yes, that opening has a spine-tingling authority, but the spontaneous tears were less for the music and more the effect of having beloved Wigmore Hall filled with music again – if not filled with an audience. Along with many other people, musicians and music lovers, I miss live music so much: I feel painfully bereft and in order to deal with this emptiness, I have avoided, until now, the many livestream performances and other music making which is going on online all the time now.

This was the first of a much-heralded and eagerly anticipated series of live concerts from Wigmore Hall, made possible by a collaboration with Radio 3, the hall and a generous benefactor. Why is this so significant, so tear-jerkingly meaningful? Because in the third week of March 2020, Wigmore Hall, along with the rest of London’s cultural life, closed its doors in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. My last visit to WH was at the very end of February to hear, with a good friend, Jonathan Biss scorching his way through Beethoven, a concert which had an edge-of-the seat electricity and immediacy, and left us speechless. I didn’t know then that this would be my last visit to beloved Wigmore Hall for many months; I don’t know when I will be back there.

But, as Stephen Hough said in a conversation with Petroc Trelawny on Radio 3’s Breakfast show, the fact that live music has returned to WH, albeit bereft of an audience but for the Radio 3 presenter and hall director John Gilhooly, is a glimmer of hope, a sign that things may be making tiny, tentative steps to return to normal (I refuse to use phrases like “the new normal”!). Later, in an interview on Channel 4 News, Stephen said that not since the 16th century had we been “starved of” live music in this way; the concert halls remained open and the music played on even during wartime.

173441-bildschirmfoto-2020-06-01-um-13-35-56-kopie

The programme was, of course, exemplary in both its selection and execution. One can guarantee that Stephen Hough will always perform music which is so much more than notes on the page. Ferruccio Busoni was a regular performer at the Wigmore, then Bechstein Hall, in its early years, and indeed played at the hall’s inaugural concert. His transcription of the extraordinary Chaconne is a romantic tour de force, for both instrument and player, a fantasy of sorts, while remaining faithful to Bach’s original conception. Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op 17, is also a tour de force, of the myriad facets of love, originally conceived as a deep lament for his beloved Clara during a period of enforcement separation.

This music is profoundly moving at the best of times, and now, in what for the music industry is the worst of times, it had a special resonance, emotionally charged, brave yet never showy, authoritative and thoughtful and, in the Schumann, both extrovert and virtuosic and passionately tender. Inspiring, uplifting and painfully wonderful, there was Stephen Hough on stage, immaculate in his usual concert attire, playing beautifully to an empty hall.

As he said in his Channel 4 interview, the audience are a crucial part of the concert experience for the performer. Not only does a hall full of people have a different acoustic, but a living, breathing – and, yes, coughing – audience creates “a very active involvement in the music, and I think a performer senses this, the energy…and that quietness, when people are listening and attentive, and you feel an electricity there that you cannot replicate” (Stephen Hough).

An empty hall has a different kind of quietness, and in that strange solitude Busoni’s architecture seemed all the more monumental, while Schumann’s inner struggles had a greater poignancy.

Apparently, some 2000 people tuned in for the livestream performance, which was notable for the high quality of both sound and filming (for piano nerds like me, close ups of the pianist’s hands were a real treat – you just don’t get that close as an audience member). As a friend of mine, like me a regular at Wigmore Hall, remarked on Twitter:

Of course this makes us ache for performance with an audience again; but it’s also brought home to me that this is the only way some people can *ever* see/hear a Wigmore Hall concert. That so many of us are ‘together’ remotely for this adds something inexpressible to the stream. @Adrian_Specs

There was, via the social networks, indeed a shared experience. Not the same shared experience as one enjoys at a concert with friends, but nonetheless a very palpable togetherness. I knew I was listening with several of my regular concert companions, albeit remotely, and this brought a feeling of solidarity too. Because we will be back at Wigmore Hall. We will once again sink into its plush red velvet seats, open the programme to peruse the evening’s offering, enjoy conversation and wine during the interval, and experience the incomparable thrill of live music.

In the meantime, BBC Radio 3’s Special Broadcast series continues at Wigmore Hall every day until 19 June. Full details here

Watch Stephen Hough’s concert here