CONCERT PIANIST STEPHEN HOUGH
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.