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.
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