It would usually be every performer’s nightmare, walking onto the stage and peering out into the audience… to see every single seat unoccupied. Yet when Stephen Hough strode out onto Wigmore’s Hall’s hallowed platform this lunchtime to play the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and Schumann’s Fantasie in C major to an audience of just two – BBC Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor and Wigmore Hall’s director John Gilhooly – it was a cause of celebration rather than box office embarrassment.

Stephen Hough

It was exactly eleven weeks ago that the hall last rang to the sound of music when Alessandro Fisher and Roger Vignoles performed a lunchtime recital that was destined to be the last live music-making – certainly the last live classical music broadcast – in the UK before lockdown. That evening’s scheduled performance by the Škampa Quartet was swiftly cancelled after the government issued advice during the afternoon that the public should not visit theatres or concert halls due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Just like every other venue in the country, the Wigmore fell silent… until today. 

In a creative move, Gilhooly announced a partnership with BBC Radio 3 to bring music back to its stage with a series of weekday lunchtime concerts throughout June – solo and duo performers only for now to observe correct social distancing rules – broadcast live on the radio with streamed video on the Wigmore’s website. Streamed concerts – some even with audiences – have resumed in other European countries, but this is a significant move for the UK, a glimpse of green shoots for a crippled industry desperate to be reinvigorated. 

It was appropriate that this recital began with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. It was 119 years ago yesterday that the hall first opened its doors, and Federico Busoni shared the bill with, among others, Eugène Ysaÿe. Busoni made his transcription of the final movement of the Partita in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004, between 1891 and 1892 whilst living in Boston and it’s become a pillar of the piano repertoire.

Stephen Hough in an empty Wigmore Hall

Hough is not a pianist prone to undue exaggeration. His opening forte was never pushed hard, as he set off purposefully, the con fuoco animato section neither too fast nor too furious. Wearing an elegant brocade jacket, he maintained a watchful eye – and ear – on the work’s wider architecture, drawing sonorous colours, particularly in the section Busoni marked “quasi tromboni”. Hough excelled in casting a tranquil spell in the central section before building to a majestic close. 

Given our long absence away from live music, Hough’s choice of Schumann was also apt. The first movement of the Fantasie was composed in 1836 during a period of enforced separation for the composer from his beloved Clara Wieck. “The first movement may well be the most passionate I have ever composed,” Schumann wrote to Clara, “a profound lament for you.” Hough caressed this opening movement tenderly, yet there was always dry-eyed intent and a sense of momentum, no drooping permitted. The second movement was bright and bracing, playful in the scherzando section, before serenity returned in a beautifully shaded finale. I could envisage the silent audience at home clamouring for an encore and Hough brought us back to Bach, this time via Charles Gounod whose Méditation adds a familiar melody – which we now know as the Ave Maria – over Bach’s rippling prelude.  

Apart from a brief audio dropout on Youtube near the end of the Schumann (not suffered on the radio) the sound quality was truly excellent. Wigmore Hall regularly live streams selected recitals and the mix of camera angles was judicious, with plenty of close-ups of Hough’s playing. 

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Rarely has a reunion been so welcome and so joyous.

This concert was reviewed from the live stream.