United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 22 – Brahms, Sawer, Haydn: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC Philharmonic / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.7.2017. (CS)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor Op.15
David Sawer – The Greatest Happiness Principle (1997)
Haydn – Symphony No.99 in E flat major
My first thought on settling into my seat at the Royal Albert Hall, was that this programme was all back to front: a substantial Romantic concerto in the first half of the concert, followed by a modern work which had its Proms première twenty years ago, and finishing with a light-hearted symphony by Haydn. In the event, Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic showed that in fact it made perfect sense to move from the dark contemplations of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, via David Sawer’s lithe, witty musical engagement with Enlightenment ideals, arriving finally at the playful experimentation of the 61-year-old Haydn.
Pianist Stephen Hough is more esteemed for his sparkling tone, technical brilliance and deep thoughtfulness than for the sort of flamboyance and bravura that usually come to mind when pianists do battle with orchestras in weighty nineteenth-century concertos. But, here, restraint, precision and intelligence shone light into the darkness of Brahms First Piano Concerto. Playing with real care and discernment, Hough held back from the orchestral savagery and tumult, calming the threatening timpani rolls, snarling horns and forthright strings, and luring the BBCPO to engage in pensive conversations.
The second subject of the opening Maestoso sang with true dolce warmth – I could literally feel the tension fall from my shoulders, eased by the piano’s hymn-like arcs and swells. Though symphonic in nature – to the dislike and disapproval of its first audiences – the concerto is also a reminder of the young Brahms’s own virtuosity. Hough may not have quite had the measure of the music’s power and stature in the more explosive passages – such as the pounding octaves of the first movement’s development section – but the clarity of the piano’s complex, awkward figurations was astonishing, particularly as Hough hardly seemed to move, his shoulders still, his posture self-composed, even when his hands were flying up and down the keyboard.
In the Adagio, Brahms’s self-confessed ‘tender portrait’ of Clara Schumann, Hough hinted quietly at the troubled emotional currents that run under the calm surface, but also assuaged any intimated anxieties. The chains of thirds were even, tranquil and spiritual; at times, the movement retreated to a pianissimo so gentle that it seemed that the music might simply slip away into heavenly realms – until it was drawn back by the sensitive interactions by the clarinets and oboes in the central section.
One imagines that Brahms’s close friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, would have approved of the concerto’s folk-inflected final Rondo. Hough and Wigglesworth largely ignored the ‘non troppo’ which follows the composer’s Allegro tempo indication, and the vigour of the opening theme was matched by a sense of roguish high-spirits despite the minor key. The major key episodes, in contrast, swept by gallantly and graciously.
This concerto may be symphonic in style and dimensions, but Hough and Wigglesworth also showed us how well-proportioned the work is, its three movements in perfect dialogue and balance. The late Henry Colles, The Times’ chief music critic from 1911-43, commented, ‘There is a story at the back of all Brahms’s great works, but it is a personal story, not a dramatic one like the stories of Berlioz or Liszt, and it is told only in music.’ Hough told that story with clarity, insight and tenderness.
There’s a story, too, behind David Sawer’s The Greatest Happiness Principle, but not one that I would have detected if I hadn’t been enlightened by a programme article that the work was inspired by the utopian ideas of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham: specifically by Bentham’s application of the ‘panoptic principle’ when creating his circular design for a prison in Millbank in 1791 – a design which was intended to achieve the (less-than-utopian) aim that all of the prisoners could be continuously observed without them being aware they were under constant surveillance.
I’m not sure that I would have detected anything ‘utopian’ about Sawer’s score, but it certainly has a driving energy, the vivacity of which is enhanced by imaginative, varied orchestration. Wigglesworth and the BBCPO had a real spring in their step and wound up the tension, until the music literally imploded in the final bars, the conductor ‘giving up’ and leaving the orchestra to play themselves into ‘extinction’!
The ending of the Finale of Haydn’s Symphony No.99 was equally ‘unexpected’, with many in the Proms audience caught out by the ever-mischievous composer’s ‘false’ ending and intruding with precipitous applause. I’m not surprised they were eager to show their appreciation, though, for this was a delightfully colourful and perspicacious performance, as Wigglesworth brought the tiniest details of Haydn’s inventive orchestration and instrumental interplay to the fore.
Wigglesworth was a sprightly figure on the podium, as jaunty as Haydn’s melodies in the first movement Vivace assai, and dancing with grace in the Menuetto where he coaxed broadly flowing momentum and stylish phrasing from his players but did not neglect the wit and drama of Haydn’s unexpected pauses. The wind playing in the Adagio was beautifully expressive, and the sense that after the spry zest of the opening movement we were now being led into deeper emotional reflections was enhanced by the thoughtful trumpet and, especially, timpani contributions. In contrast, though the Finale abounds with harmonic quirks and elaborate counterpoint, it breezed by with easy charm and a light spirit.
Wigglesworth and the BBCPO might have been deemed to have fulfilled Bentham’s ideal of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, judging by the smiles on the Prommers’ faces at the end of the superb concert.
For more about the 2017 BBC Proms click here.