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.
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.