Wigmore Hall, London
"This is probably the most extreme piece I've ever played," warned Stephen Hough after sitting down at the piano for his latest concert as the Wigmore Hall's artist-in-residence. Few in the audience would have heard Morton Feldman's 1951 Variations before, and his opening remarks about the work's conspicuous use of silence were welcome, or mostly so; running late, I had sprinted a four-minute mile to the hall, reaching my seat only seconds before Hough reached his. Wheezing like a wrecked steam engine, I nearly seized up altogether when the pianist requested his audience keep their breathing to an absolute minimum.
Initially entitled Variation, the piece was originally choreographed by Merce Cunningham with randomly generated ballet steps. It proved impossible to dance to, but it works wonderfully as music. Set between short articulations, derived from a limited harmonic palette, the silences encourage the listener to string the music together like a series of gleaming, oddly shaped gemstones.
Hough's all-American programme was conceived in honour of his guests for the evening, the New York-based Juilliard Quartet, who performed Elliot Carter's fifth String Quartet with precisely the mixture of seamless precision and depth of tonal character this music requires. Like the Feldman, the work generates itself from the tension between rest and motion, but the flow here is much busier and the moments of communion between the players have a fleeting, almost illicit sense to them.
Lowell Liebermann's Piano Quintet, with which the programme concluded, rarely stops to draw breath either, though in other respects it is far removed from Carter's world. The tussle here is between the semi-pastiche of each movement – Brahms, Ravel, Fauré, Shostakovich – and the tight, mechanistic drive which binds it all together. Though extrovert and occasionally brash, it is a surprisingly intimate work, and was beautifully executed by Hough and his distinguished guests.
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