Al­ways reimag­in­ing

CON­CERT PI­ANIST STEPHEN HOUGH

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

Con­cert pi­anist Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough proves that a con­cert pi­anist can have a top-flight ca­reer with­out be­ing os­ten­ta­tious. His char­ac­ter is doubt­less in­flected by Bri­tish re­serve — he grew up in the re­gion of Liver­pool and Manchester — but he projects un­de­ni­able charisma from the stage, al­ways seem­ing to in­vite the lis­tener to join him as an equal in a voy­age of mu­si­cal dis­cov­ery. He last ap­peared in our city in 2012, and this week Per­for­mance Santa Fe brings him back for a re­turn recital at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, where he will play Ro­man­tic mas­ter­works by Schu­bert, Franck, and Liszt in ad­di­tion to one of his own pi­ano sonatas. These com­ments are con­densed from a re­laxed, widerang­ing, and thor­oughly en­joy­able phone con­ver­sa­tion.

Pasatiempo: For a re­cent in­stall­ment of the BBC Ra­dio 4 pro­gram Desert Is­land Discs, you drew up a wide-rang­ing playlist of some fa­vorite record­ings. Only two of the eight you chose — Al­fred Cor­tot play­ing the Chopin Pre­ludes (around 1930) and Sergei Rach­mani­noff play­ing his tran­scrip­tion of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid (recorded in 1921) — were of pi­ano mu­sic, which was per­haps sur­pris­ing since you are most fa­mous as a pi­anist. What are some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that ap­peal to you in this old-style pi­anism?

Hough: They dif­fer from each other. The French Cor­tot is much more free, he plays with a broader brush­stroke. Rach­mani­noff’s is fas­tid­i­ous pi­anism. No one played with as much pre­ci­sion as well as rhyth­mic drive. There are cer­tain spe­cific things they do. They use the pedal in a dif­fer­ent way — I’d like to say more imag­i­na­tively — from what I of­ten hear, whether from stu­dents at a very high level, or com­pe­ti­tion pi­anists, or pro­fes­sion­als. There are cer­tain stylis­tic traits of phras­ing that you could iden­tify as be­ing a bit old-fash­ioned. There is a break­ing be­tween the hands, arpeg­giat­ing chords — all of these things are not what we gen­er­ally would hear to­day. With some younger play­ers some of these el­e­ments are com­ing back, but in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, you would rarely hear any­one play­ing in this kind of style.

Cor­tot stud­ied with a pupil of Chopin. Rach­mani­noff was around Scri­abin. We’re in­ter­ested in au­then­tic­ity when we’re talk­ing about Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, but it seems like we’re not so in­ter­ested in au­then­tic­ity when it comes to Ro­man­tic mu­sic. My ideal in ap­proach­ing this mu­sic is to go ab­so­lutely to ur­text score [i.e. a score that hews as­sid­u­ously to the com­poser’s no­ta­tion]. I wouldn’t want to ap­proach the mu­sic of that pe­riod in a hap­haz­ard kind of “Ro­man­tic” way, but I think there is a way of hav­ing both “Ro­man­tic ex­pres­sion” and a schol­arly ap­proach.

Pasa: An ar­ti­cle you re­cently pub­lished in Ra­dio Times has pro­voked con­sid­er­able dis­cus­sion. You sug­gested that clas­si­cal con­certs might be ready for a makeover — that they ought to be shorter and start ear­lier, and that they ought not to have in­ter­mis­sions — or in­ter­vals, as the Bri­tish call them. Why do you con­sider these changes de­sir­able?

Hough: There has been some mis­un­der­stand­ing about that ar­ti­cle. I ended up putting the whole text on Twit­ter so peo­ple could ac­tu­ally read what I said. I ex­pressed these things only as an op­tion. I wouldn’t want to get rid of the stan­dard con­cert length or for­mat en­tirely. I have not had many op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­per­i­ment with al­ter­na­tive for­mats, ex­cept for lunchtime con­certs, which are an hour long. I re­cently played a recital in Mex­ico City — things are very flex­i­ble there! — and I made an in­ter­val of five min­utes. I re­ally en­joyed that. I find that the in­ter­val is a dif­fi­cult time. The adren­a­line has been flow­ing dur­ing the first half, and then you just stop and sit in the dressing room not re­ally do­ing any­thing; and af­ter that it takes time to get back in the flow when you start all over again. It was just a thought that it might be time to ring some changes. I would be in­ter­ested in try­ing out late-night con­certs, or maybe hav­ing two short con­certs in­stead of one long one, with a large break be­tween. We need to be al­ways reimag­in­ing and not just set­tling into what’s al­ways been done.

Pasa: You worked with a num­ber of teach­ers dur­ing your years as a de­vel­op­ing pi­anist, and now you serve on the fac­ul­ties of the Royal North­ern School of Mu­sic in Manchester, the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic in London, and The Juil­liard School in New York — all of this fa­cil­i­tated by the fact that you main­tain res­i­dences in both London and New York. What should a mu­sic stu­dent ex­pect of a teacher, and vice versa?

Hough: It depends on what stage they are at. It’s a bit like par­ent­ing. When you start, you tell your child ev­ery­thing. We learn by imi­ta­tion. But the skill of a great par­ent is to know when to grad­u­ally let de­vel­op­ing minds discover some things for them­selves. I have only one stu­dent at Juil­liard, which is all I have time for. I had one who fin­ished last year, and now I have a dif­fer­ent one. I told them that I will lis­ten to their play­ing as if it were a con­cert and will tell them what I think. I want them to feel free to dis­agree, but I want them to con­sider what I say. I won’t be of­fended if they take an­other route. At that level, I ap­proach teach­ing more in the spirit of be­ing a friend or men­tor.

Pasa: You have now re­leased more than 60 record­ings cov­er­ing a broad range of reper­toire. Is there some stan­dard reper­toire you would like to record, or mu­sic you have recorded some time ago and would like to have an­other go at?

Hough: I did rere­cord the Brahms con­cer­tos, which I was keen to do, and the Beethoven con­cer­tos are on the hori­zon; we’re just try­ing to sort out the right place to do those. There’s a lot of solo reper­toire I haven’t recorded; I want to do the late Brahms pieces, for ex­am­ple, and I am plan­ning a De­bussy CD. My next re­lease is ti­tled Dream Al­bum. Many of the pieces are lyri­cal or have a hal­lu­ci­na­tory qual­ity, and it in­cludes quite a few tran­scrip­tions, which are about imag­in­ing a piece in a dif­fer­ent way. The record­ing field is not ex­actly flour­ish­ing in terms of the con­ven­tional CD be­ing is­sued. Many large com­pa­nies have now been com­bined into a few. But Hype­r­ion [his la­bel] seems to be do­ing well. They have al­ways had low over­head, and have never spent lav­ishly on mar­ket­ing. They pre­fer to spend their money on the prod­uct it­self. They’re al­ways say­ing ‘Tell us what you want to record next,’ so that’s a won­der­ful po­si­tion to be in.

Pasa: You al­ways seem to have a num­ber of artis­tic irons in the fire, what with your com­pos­ing, paint­ing, and writ­ing in ad­di­tion to be­ing a pi­anist. How are things bal­anc­ing just now?

Hough: I don’t do any of these things to try to prove any­thing. They come from in­ner ne­ces­sity. I’ve al­ways en­joyed writ­ing words as much as mu­sic. I’m tak­ing time away from learn­ing big new con­cer­tos, and one of the ma­jor rea­sons is that I have fin­ished my first novel and am now work­ing on novel num­ber two. I’m in my mid-fifties; I don’t want to be in my mid-six­ties or sev­en­ties and wish­ing I’d had time to do such and such a thing, so I’m mak­ing the time to do some of those things now.

The novel I have com­pleted deals with the topic of a sui­ci­dal priest. It had been at the back of my mind for decades, but given my sched­ule, I couldn’t fig­ure out how to ac­tu­ally write it. I was al­ways think­ing I would need to find time to sit at my desk for months on end. But then I be­came aware last year of how Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs wrote Naked Lunch, in short bits. That in­spired me to write my novel in the form of a note­book kept by the priest dur­ing an eight-day silent re­treat. Sud­denly I re­al­ized I could write this as my own kind of note­book; it didn’t have to be writ­ten from page one on to the end. I quickly found that I had 70 chap­ters sketched al­most with­out ef­fort in the course of my trav­el­ing, on planes, in ho­tels. It’s a shock­ing book, quite ex­plicit, evok­ing the mind­set of some­one at the point of de­spair. Parts of it re­sem­ble prose po­ems, with a lot of the­ol­ogy in there, too, ex­plor­ing ideas about the ex­is­tence of hell, about con­fes­sion, cer­tain Chris­to­log­i­cal things. I have been very in­volved with Catholi­cism, some­times with se­ri­ous doubts, and I still go to mass ev­ery Sun­day, but I wouldn’t say the novel is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal at all. This priest has a sad de­pres­sive prob­lem, some­thing I haven’t had to face. The next novel is mu­si­cal, but it is in its early stages. Schu­bert makes a cameo ap­pear­ance in it.

Pasa: And you are busy as a com­poser. Last time you gave a recital in Santa Fe, you in­cluded your Pi­ano Sonata No. 2, ti­tled Bro­ken Branches. This time we get your Sonata No. 3, ti­tled Trini­tas. Does it have a the­o­log­i­cal bent?

Hough: My whole pro­gram is about com­posers who had is­sues with their Catholi­cism: Schu­bert, Franck, Liszt, and me. All four were lapsed or semi-lapsed Catholics. Trini­tas is a 12-tone piece, the first piece I’ve writ­ten us­ing that tech­nique since I was a stu­dent. Schoen­berg de­vised the 12-tone sys­tem to make sure it had no rec­og­niz­able tonal roots. I’m try­ing to use my tone row to re­dis­cover tonal­ity through the 12-tone tech­nique. I like sub­ti­tles, and I called it

Trini­tas be­cause there were lots of threes in­volved — the row is full of ma­jor and mi­nor thirds, the piece is in three sec­tions — and also be­cause it was com­mis­sioned by a lib­eral Catholic mag­a­zine. I started to think that the idea of the Trin­ity is man-made dogma from the 4th cen­tury that had good and bad things about it. It pro­vided in­ter­est­ing in­sights into the na­ture of the God­head, but if you didn’t be­lieve in the Trin­ity, you got your head chopped off. It was the same with 12-tone mu­sic in the 20th cen­tury; you had to use that tech­nique in the ’50, ’60s, and early ’70s. It was also a dogma in its time. There was this sense that you wouldn’t be com­mis­sioned, per­formed or broad­cast, or you wouldn’t even get onto a univer­sity cam­pus to study com­po­si­tion un­less you wrote in this style. So I thought the Trin­ity and the 12-tone sys­tem had some­thing com­mon in that way. It is a lit­tle old­fash­ioned, in a way, to write a 12-tone piece to­day.

I do keep busy com­pos­ing. I have pub­lished over 30 works I’ve writ­ten over the past 10 years, and I am work­ing on a big com­mis­sion for the BBC at the mo­ment. Just a few weeks ago there was a con­cert at the Wig­more Hall [in London] of all my songs — four song cy­cles — the first time there was a con­cert con­sist­ing of just my com­po­si­tions. It was a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence for me, just sit­ting in the au­di­ence be­ing the com­poser.

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