Rhinegold Publishing

Happy Birthday Stephen Hough

9:45, 12th February 2015

Hough at 50 (from IP Nov/Dec 2011)

As his 50th birthday approaches, Stephen Hough
reflects on creative pianism, blogging and life’s musical journey. By Andrew Stewart

Notes and more notes, performing without blemish or
individuality. This could easily be a description of a kind of modern pianism.
Of course, there’s much to be said for playing a composition as written down
and in the manner intended by its creator. But if the story ends there, as so
often happens, its message will last little longer than it takes for the
concert hall to clear or the recording to fade to silence. Stephen Hough yields
to nobody when it comes to delivering unblemished performances. And yet it is
what he says with them that inhabits the memory. The true purpose of
performance is central to Hough’s being: his is an art founded on sharing
thoughts and feelings, profound and playful, with others.

When we meet in central London, Hough notes that a simple
smile directed to a stranger can exceed the value of an extravagant yet
personal act of charity. Those looking for a key to understanding his work may
find it in this comment. For sure, he sincerely believes in the power of the
human spirit to transcend everyday cares, to bridge the gap between the mundane
and the divine. Turn an ear to one of Hough’s first recital albums, My Favourite Things, a compelling
collection of encore pieces and transcriptions recorded close to a quarter of a
century ago. The hallmarks of his mature pianism and genuine artistry were
already securely established at the time of its making in 1987, from the
spectacular virtuosity of his finger-work and infinitely subtle tonal
gradations to the substance of what happens between the notes, the silences and
fractional rhythmic shifts that echo an earlier, richer age of making music at
the piano.

Hough turns 50 on 22 November. The approaching milestone
steers our conversation through life’s periodic stocktaking requirements
towards talk of future ambitions. The date on his birth certificate, he
observes, bears some significance, but Hough surveys his imminent half-century
with the feeling of being in the middle of a journey rather than within sight
finish. “Time becomes a factor in life, of course, and you want to do as much
as you can,’ he says. ‘But there’s also a sense of not caring so much what
people think about what you do.’ Hough applies that qualifying clause to the
full measure of his creative work, which presently spans everything from
performing and composing to journalism and essay writing. There are things
still to be done, more compositions on the boil and a novel brewing. ‘I want to
record the Dvorak Piano Concerto, for example, a piece that I love.’ The next
three years, he adds he adds, are already well planned. ‘After that, I feel
there’s still much more to be developed and explored.’

The forward planning process, he adds, must allow time
for reflection, deep thought, reading and ‘to potter’. Hough made space in his
diary this summer for a short break from the concert platform. Whilst others
might have rested, he recharged his batteries with a burst of composition. He
also tended to his blog spot on the Daily
website. Writing music and words is far more that Hough’s
hobby. ‘It really is very important for me,’ observes a composer with over two
dozen original works and transcriptions in print and many other manuscript.
Hough arrives at our meeting bearing the new orchestrated and significantly
revised full score of his Mass of
and Experience, a
substantial setting of the Latin liturgical text and words by William Blake.
The work, first performed in its version for choir and organ at Westminster
Cathedral in 2007, has sparked interest from five orchestras. ‘Obviously, I
hope they like it, but […] I know I’ve written what I wanted to write.’

A trawl through Hough’s website soon nets a strong
impression of the habitual polymath’s urge to create. The online resource
contains links to articles on everything from Liszt’s complex genius and music’s
power to unify Europe, to the Catholic Church and its increasingly vexatious
views on homosexuality. When it comes to blogging Hough the author explains
that he remains determine never review the work of fellow musicians. ‘I want to
write about things in addition to music while preserving an element of personal
privacy,’ he explains. ‘I think people like the fact that the blog opens some
sort of background into what I’m thinking; for me, it’s a marvellous way to
express myself publicly and attract feedback on what I formerly used to jot
down in letters to friends or in notebooks. I have to scribble down ideas,
whether poetic, political or musical – it’s something that burns inside me.
And, of course, people like to know trivial details about a performer’s life,
snippets of information about the coffee they drink or the fact they like to
spoke a cigar in the evening.’

Although Hough’s spare evenings are unadorned by cigar
smoke, he recalls a time when he was lost to the lore of the pipe. ‘I became
passionate about pipe smoking in my late teens. I remember my father taking me
to a tobacconists in Manchester around my 17th birthday to buy my
first pipe and an ounce of tobacco from the wooden jars on the shelf. I smoked
a pipe for about 10 years and used to do all my practicing with one in my
mouth. Around the late 1980’s, I decided it probably wasn’t good for me and
stopped.’ His collection of 30 or so briars, a valuable auction lot, remains in
Hough’s north London home as a reminder of his habit.

The tale of the well – stocked pipe and its ability to
deliver multiple holes to the pianist’s trousers speaks volumes for a man who
remains gloriously untroubled by market pressures to conform. Stephen Hough
has, however, attracted several neat labels in his time, crafted by critics
scarcely able to believe the refinement of his technique and musicianship. It’s
true that arts marketeers love performers blessed with such quotable review
lines as ‘The most perfect piano playing conceivable’ and ‘A virtuoso who begins
where others leave off.’ Add Hough’s collection of prestigious recording prizes
to the package, plus his A-list accomplishments as a recitalist and concert
soloist, and you have the raw ingredients required for a superlative-fuelled
marketing campaign. But then comes the ‘problem’ of Hough as composer, author
and all-round Renaissance man, one that reverberates with strong echoes of a
time when performing artists composed, crafted feuilletons, penned letters by
the cartload and even shaped national politics.

‘I can’t think of any pianist before the 1940s who didn’t
compose,’ Hough says in response to my analysis of today’s ages of the
specialist, the all-too-easily branded ‘keyboard virtuoso’ or ‘serious’
composer. In the mid –19th century, if you arrived in a town to
perform without a composition to your name, it would see as extraordinary as a
chef who didn’t cook. Specialisation came as a repertoire expanded: there
wasn’t time to do everything. But I think it also belongs to the great divide
between classical and popular music that began in the early 20 century.’

Hough recalls meeting with senior executives from a major
record label in his career’s opening decade. The conversation was ruled on one
side by talk of packaging and presentation.

‘The head of artists and repertoire said he was
interested in doing things with me, but that the ideas would first have to go
to marketing, “If they don’t feel there’s a hook on which to hand your
recording career, then it won’t happen.’ And they didn’t. If they had, I think
the hook would have come off the wall quite a few years ago.’ Gaining a
contract with a major label, he adds, is one thing; keeping it, quite another.
‘I would be very scared as a young person to accept a big contract: they tend
to squeeze you dry, like a lemon, and then look for the next young talent.
There’s no longer a sense, as there was with Arrau and Brendel, of the 50-year
recording career: if it lasts 15 months today, it’s a long time.’

The requisite major label marketing hook may have been
beyond Hough’s grasp. Fortunately, he managed to forge an enduring partnership
with the independent Hyperion. Measured by repertoire range alone, the
Hough-Hyperion axis has far outreached what any major labels would have
supported, from unknown works by Sauer and Scharwenka to library-building
accounts of the piano concertos of Rachmaninov, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky.
His recent album of Chopin’s complete waltzes scored a clutch of five-star
reviews and raised the rarest consensus among seasoned piano critics and its
even rarer degree of sophistication.

In terms of artistry and insight, Stephen Hough’s
complete discography ranks squarely among the most important contributions to
the piano discography of the past quarter century, a view reinforced by underpinning
foundations of critical acclaim, record awards and public interest. The deal,
despite occasional helpful nudges from Hyperion’s staff, essentially depends on
the pianist recording works only when he feels ready. ‘They want me to record
more,’ he observes, ‘but I don’t want to do something unless it is right? This
November sees the release of the two piano concertos of Liszt and Grieg’s
evergreen Piano Concerto, recorded with the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew
Litton. Hough’s big birthday is also marked by an album of his own compositions
on the BIS label, the ‘Broken Branches’ Piano Sonata and Was mit den Tranen geschieht for piccolo, contrabassoon and piano
among them.

Hough reveals that his approach to the Lizst concertos
has been influenced by his favourite players, from Cortot and Ignaz Friedman to
Benno Moiseiwitsch and Rachmaninov. While Moiseiwtsch’s legendary rhythmic freedom
remains sui generis, Hough’s playing certainly evokes strong impressions of the
poetic pianism and strikingly wide expressive range cultivated by his hit-list of
past greats. ‘It’s not about copying Cortot or Rachmaninov,’ he explains. ‘But
there’s a way of inflecting and shaping phrases, a matter of rubato and
rhythmic flexibility, that we can hear on their recordings from the 1920s and
1930s. It’s about absorbing the style so that it becomes, natural, so you are
creating your own interpretation complete with some of those devices. Every
time I practise, I’m trying to do things better, to find greater colour and
improve the way of phrasing, pedalling and so on. If you’re not creating colour
as a pianist, you’re not doing very much at all. It’s difficult to express in
words, but you have to create a singing sound on the instrument.’

The pianist’s desire to ‘to things better’ was clearly in
full spate when he recorded Chopin’s complete waltzes. Is he aware of the
striking differences between his recorded interpretations of the composer’s
waltzes in C sharp minor Op.34 No.1, as set down in July 2008 for his Stephen Hough in Recital album, and
those from his complete waltz survey of October 2010? ‘I didn’t listen to the
recital disc’s Chopin waltzes [before recording them again],’ he replies. ‘But
I did use a very different piano. I wanted a piano with a transparent sound, a
not a rich, creaming Steinway but something, closer to the world of Pleyel
piano of Chopin’s time. His waltz textures are very airy and transparent, so I
wanted to let the sound float and for the phrasing to be graceful. I couldn’t
find a Steinway at the time that would do this? Hough paid a visit to
Chappell’s Soho piano showroom, that it was perfect for his Chopin project. He
has since used the instrument to record an album of French repertoire. ‘It
wouldn’t be right for everything, although it’s ideal for the Chopin waltzes.’

History and innovation coalesce in Hough’s approach to
programming. His blend of old and new, serious and playful, impassioned and
reflective, offers audiences a great deal more than the narrow stock of concert
potboilers and familiar encore pieces. Repertoire diversity lies at the heart
of his spell this season at Wigmore Hall’s artist in residence, which offers
solo works by Morton Feldman, Elliott Carter and Janacek and a series of piano
quintet collaborations with the likes of the Skampa, Julliard and Endellion
Quartets. The business of the building recital programmes reflects the
performer’s deeper desire to connect with his audience, a matter of sharing the
fruits of countless hours of practice and contemplation.

Anyone tempted to conflate Hough’s artistry with his
Roman Catholic faith should expect an unequivocal response: he is a catholic
and a pianist, not a Catholic pianist. The pianist’s worldview, however, does
embrace the sacred rituals of religion and those of performing classical music.
He recalls a time when he considered joining priesthood and the response of a
priest, adamant that music should remain Hough’s ministry.

‘The piano, he said, was my altar: “There are many
priests but few musicians who are saints.” He was right – and I’m afraid I’ve
rather disappointed him by not shifting the balance!’

Occasionally, he continues, a fleeting thought, a form of
prayer, comes to mind moments before he performs. ‘The old Latin Mass began
with the antiphon “Introibo ad altare Dei” (“I will go in to the altar of
God”). I think there’s something wonderful about that for a musician.
Performing is not like putting on the chip pan. If you’re about to play a
Schubert sonata, while not wishing to be prissing or pompous about it, you are
going to an altar of some kind. There’s something sacred about performing,
Humans love ritual and, because of that, I think the old model of concerts is
far from dead. There’s a mystery to it all and a mystery to the performer
sitting at the piano, the magic of and need for which will outlive us all. ‘

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