Christian Zacharias (*****)/ Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake (****)

Wigmore Hall, London

The German pianist Christian Zacharias has a curious way of acknowledging applause: he walks in little circles round the piano-stool, flapping his hands and muttering to himself as though he’s not sure how well he’s done, barely seeming to notice the audience.

And his opening manner is casual, beginning a piece before he’s even properly sat down, which gave the Andante of Beethoven’s Opus 26 funeral-march sonata an improvisatory feel. But that’s what his art is all about – not imposing a view, but letting each piece grow at its own pace, and this movement was powered by a loose-jointed, singing tone.

The Scherzo was notably unhurried, and the funeral march seemed to short-change the drama until some angry drum-rolls kicked in. The concluding Allegro was soft, fleet, and sweet, until its last notes faded away in the distance.

And if that was revelatory, so was everything else in this recital. I have never known Schubert’s "6 Moments musicaux D 780" to acquire such amplitude and resonance as here, thanks to Zacharias’s deep empathy with this deceptively simple-seeming music.

The first piece became a series of calls and echoes in the woods, the second had a caressing inwardness, broken just momentarily by a burst of hard-toned fury; each was a world in itself, with its own particular touch on the keys.

Continuing with Schumann’s "Kreisleriana", Zacharias seemed to pass up on the initial invitation to virtuosity, but he more than made up for that later with a wonderfully exhilarating ride, then made a quirky exit in the comic finale. And to end with Beethoven’s unassuming "Sonata Op 14 No 2" was a quirky decision in itself: he turned its simple variations into a fascinating sequence of receding perspectives, before hurtling home in the off-the-wall Allegro assai (pointedly ignoring the assai); his Scarlatti encore was exquisite.

The next morning soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Julius Drake gave a bright account of a programme by Haydn, Brahms, and Schumann. Hughes’s big, vibrato-free sound was ideally matched to some English canzonettas by Haydn to which Jane Austen herself had probably once listened, and in Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’ Hughes and her excellent accompanist brought this composer’s doom-laden world to passionate life.

She had some problems projecting her words and keeping a sustained tone, but she caught the music’s spirit perfectly. 

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