Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.

Stephen Hough, Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic © BBC | Mark Allan
Stephen Hough, Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Mark Allan

According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The work opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.

If the orchestra didn’t feel quite inflamed enough in the opening sequences of the first movement, there was no doubting Hough’s conviction at the piano’s first entry, and throughout the movement his approach was muscular yet sympathetic, with a strong sense of tempo and an understanding of the expansive narrative arc of this music. One had the sense that he really had the measure of this music and he balanced fire and tempestuousness with tenderness and mystery. Hough can do powerful, sinewy playing but equally his pianissimos (not easy in the uncertain acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall) were caressing, delicate and ethereal. As the orchestra settled, there was much to admire in the interplay between sections, the woodwind and brass being particularly notable, together with some striking details from the cellos and basses.

The slow movement is redolent of the Adagio of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto in its chorale-like orchestral opening, and Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic caught the hushed transcendence with an understated elegance, which matched the poetry and grace of Hough’s playing. Again, those magically nuanced dynamics at the quietest end of the register and delicate filigree trills, remind us that Brahms told Clara Schumann that the second movement was “a tender portrait” of her. There was strength and passion here too, resulting in a movement that was both exhilarating and fragile.

The Rondo finale opened with a whip-cracking entry from the piano, quickly silencing the bronchitic coughers, and this “terribly difficult and grand” movement proceeded with a glorious energy and sparkling rhythmic bite which complemented the power of the first movement. Here was a clear sense of circumstances triumphing over what had gone before.

After the interval came David Sawer’s The Greatest Happiness Principle. Composed in 1997, the work’s title is taken from 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ideal of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. One obvious reference to this tenet is that each section gets a special focus, making this, in effect, a concerto for orchestra. The percussion were wonderfully precise and brilliant here, as were woodwind and brass. It’s a foot-tapping, texturally-rich fiesta of a piece, opening in Reich/Adams-like territory (repetitions, piquant contrapuntal weaving of voices) before retreating into darker realms and then breaking forth again with an intentionally chaotic final section where the conductor stopped “working”, his arms held out, and the players played by themselves. It was a good palette-sharpener for the Haydn which followed.

Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic © BBC | Mark Allan
Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Mark Allan

Haydn’s Symphony no. 99 in E flat major launched his second visit to London. If his previous “London” Symphonies reflected the exhilarating times in which they were composed, then this one outdoes its predecessors in its expressive depth and orchestral sonority. Here for the first time, Haydn was able to call on the newly-invented clarinet, whose presence is felt right from the engaging introduction. Here one felt a true synergy between conductor and orchestra and a real appreciation of the graceful sophistication of Haydn’s writing. Unlike Brahms, Haydn gives few biographical details in his music, though the first half to the symphony has an emotional depth, tempered by Haydn’s wit and charm. This was a very enjoyable and colourful performance, rich in detail of articulation, tempo, voicing and instrumental interplay. The woodwind came to the fore, Haydn exploiting the possibilities of a new instrument and its interaction with others in its section. The Adagio was luminous and serene, while the Minuet was playful and sprightly.

The fugal finale contained a “surprise” which caught many audience members off guard and elicited a burst of premature applause. This false cadence created a shared sense of humour amongst orchestra, conductor and audience, and the closing sequence was infused with jollity, Mark Wigglesworth cheerily indicating that applause was now welcome at the end of the work.