Classical Pianist Stephen Hough: Looking Back

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By Bradley Bambarger <2013>

When The Economist magazine’s Intelligent Life offshoot lamented the decline of the polymath in an age of specialization, it included pianist Stephen Hough in its 2009 group of “20 Living Polymaths,” alongside the likes of Umberto Eco, Oliver Sacks and Brian Eno. Hough certainly fits the bill. Not only is he a virtuoso performer who balances depth and charm like few others, Hough is also a prolific composer, painter and writer. His compositions have been recorded on the BIS, Linn and Hyperion labels; his abstract paintings were recently exhibited in London; and his book The Bible as Prayer was published in 2007. He manages to write a disarmingly thoughtful blog for the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper, with his 600 entries over the past five years ranging from Saint-Saëns’ missing finger to the need for theology to evolve. Hough also teaches, as a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London and as the International Chair of Piano Studies at the Royal Northern College in Manchester, his alma mater.

In 2001, Hough was the first classical performer to win a MacArthur “Genius” grant. From that and reading his CV, one might imagine sitting down for a conversation with Hough would be an imposing proposition. Yet he wears his erudition lightly and is the essence of affability, as gracious in an interview as he is graceful at the keyboard. And Hough’s eager, open mind is revealed immediately by the fact that he is as inclined to listen as he is to talk. Born in Britain in 1961, Hough has long split his time between London and New York City; while in Manhattan recently, the pianist took time out to look back over some highlights of his discography, the discussion punctuated by amiable digressions over a biography of painter Willem de Kooning that he’s reading and how Frank Sinatra had a sense of rubato akin to Alfred Cortot playing Chopin.

As a pianist who combines poetry with athleticism, Hough has a sound marked by both song and dance, with a richly cantabile tone and a natural rhythmic sophistication. His recording career took off with Virgin Classics starting in the late ’80s, but his finest releases have come from a remarkably productive and enduring affiliation with the U.K.-based Hyperion, one of the great independent record companies. The relationship began with a bang: Hough’s first release for the label — a 1996 album of unsung 19th-century concertos by Xaver Scharwenka and Emil von Sauer — won Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year award. Hough won the Gramophone Record of the Year trophy again for his 2002 set of Saint-Saëns’ complete works for piano and orchestra.

Hough’s solo discography ranges from Mozart to Mompou, and he has a promising album of Scriabin and Janácek in the pipeline. A set of chamber music is also in the works with cellist Steven Isserlis, a longtime friend, and that disc includes Grieg, Mendelssohn and Hough’s own Cello Sonata. Due out next, though, is a solo collection called In the Night that features Chopin, Schumann and Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, as well as Hough’s own Piano Sonata №2 “Notturno Luminoso.” Of his partnership with Hyperion, Hough says: “I love working with a nimble company. I came up with the idea of recording the best of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, and we were able to get it in the recording schedule the next day — incredible. And with Hyperion, not only is the production quality at the highest level possible; it’s a label where the music comes first, then the marketing. That’s the inverse of the way things usually go these days.”

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Brahms: The Piano Concertos

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg; Mark Wigglesworth, conductor

(Hyperion, 2013)

Hough first recorded the two Brahms concertos in the late ’80s for Virgin, partnering with the BBC Symphony under Andrew Davis. At one time, the idea of Hough repeating such standard repertoire for Hyperion would have been a far-fetched one, but the major labels have ceded more room to indies in this arena; moreover, Hough has proved his drawing power. His 2005 set of the Rachmaninoff concertos, recorded live with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, was the fastest-selling release in Hyperion history.

About revisiting the Brahms, Hough says: “Just like a great play, there is no end to what you can explore in these concertos. A lot of the impetus for recording them again came from working with Mark Wigglesworth. I love the way he conducts these pieces, being able to achieve this long line. The Mozarteum orchestra, too, has a chamber sensibility that I appreciate. To me, the music of Brahms is the perfect marriage of head and heart. There are works that appeal to the intellect and works that appeal to the emotions. But Brahms balances both. The first movement of the Second Concerto is one of the great episodes in music for me. It’s the most tremendous intellectual construction, like an amazing piece of architecture or a perfect mathematical formula — yet it also goes right to the heart. And you don’t need to know all that went into it to appreciate it, just as you don’t need to know how a great building is constructed to be able to walk inside and feel its good tensions, its sense of proportion.

“There is also a fascinating emotional dichotomy of openness and inwardness in Brahms. If you went to Tchaikovsky’s house, he would fling open all the doors and share everything with you — he couldn’t help himself. But Brahms would only allow you in the front room — and you sense a whole other world there just behind the doors. You never feel that you know all of Brahms, as there is layer up on layer to discover.”

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Chopin: “Late Masterpieces”

(Hyperion, 2010)

Hough has recorded genre-oriented albums of Chopin’s Ballades and Scherzos, as well as the complete Waltzes. With this album, the pianist traces his ideas of the composer’s late style. He ranges from Op. 57 to Op. 68, including the Sonata №3, the Berceuse, Barcarolle and Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat Major, as well as a brace of Mazurkas and a pair of Nocturnes. Hough, who often writes liner notes to his albums, penned a tongue-in-cheek essay that manages to find connections among Chopin, the history of the bowler hat and the paintings of Mark Rothko — justifying a cover photo of Hough in a bowler contemplating a Rothko at the Art Institute of Chicago. After ingeniously weaving together various circuitous links, Hough avers, evocatively: “If Rothko was arguably the most romantic of the Modernists, Chopin was certainly the most classical of the Romantics.”

Of Chopin’s late style, Hough says: “These late pieces share a very particular world, with Chopin more interested in counterpoint — his love of Bach and Mozart really coming through. A bit like Debussy later on in his career, Chopin’s style was becoming more pure late in life, more classical, with the harmonies slightly less lush. But he is experimenting with forms, too, as with the Barcarolle and Polonaise-Fantasy, two of his greatest works. The Berceuse is interesting as well — it’s an early example of minimalism.” Turning to consider Chopin as a personality, Hough adds: “Beethoven was a complicated man and probably not the easiest person to have dinner with. But you feel that there was a bigness to his humanity that’s appealing. There’s a pettiness and self-pitying to the Chopin you see in the letters. It’s hard to completely love him, even if you love his music. He was a snob, and he used people. But the music — few composers could say so much in such a short span. One Chopin nocturne is like an opera.”

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In Recital — Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, etc.

(Hyperion, 2009)

The title of Hough’s “In Recital” album makes it seem as if the recording is from a live concert. That was the initial intention, with a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall recorded. But various technical and atmospheric issues disappointed Hough and his producer, leading him to repeat the recital program in the studio as if it were a concert. The program comes in two halves: Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses and Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111, then a sequence of Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” and waltz-themed pieces by Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Debussy and Liszt. The capper is Hough’s arrangement of the Australian national folk tune “Waltzing Matilda,” which he fashioned as a tribute to the country where his father was born.

“The program makes for a huge range of music,” Hough says, “from the most serious, Beethoven’s Op. 111, to the least serious, my Bill Evans-style arrangement of ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ But even if it’s lighter, the waltz has been such a fruitful form for composers, and it has a lot of interesting connotations. It was usually the last ballroom dance of the evening, so there’s the promise of what the partners may go off into the night to do afterward — it has an erotic charge. The Weber was the first time that the waltz was made into a concert piece, abstracted to where it doesn’t have anything to do with actual dancing. But the French waltzes have that decadence of Paris in the early part of the century. Liszt’s ‘Forgotten Waltz’ sounds like music that you knew from somewhere else but you can’t quite place, while his ‘Mephisto’ Waltz again has that erotic charge. Oddly, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was never really in three-quarter time, but my arrangement turns it into an actual waltz.”

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Stephen Hough’s English Piano Album

(Hyperion, 2002)

Over the years, Hough has created a series of national musical travelogues, devoting albums to English, French and Spanish pieces by turns. The English Piano Album includes rarely heard music by Elgar, Frank Bridge, Granville Bantock, York Bowen, Alan Rawsthorne and Kenneth Leighton, along with new pieces by Stephen Reynolds (homages to Delius and Fauré) and a pair of “trifles” by Hough. In his liner notes, Hough points out that the most important corpus of early keyboard music was English, by the likes of Elizabethans William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons; though there was a long lag before any more significant piano music was written in Britain, “the early 20th-century coupling of French scent and German taste gave birth to a new, idiomatic Albion species — a distinctive style that can truly be said to constitute a ‘school’.”

“Most of these pre-war pieces exist where the exoticism of French harmonies meets the Germanic thing that is always there in English music, even if it’s buried away,” Hough explains. “Many of them are lyrical pieces, but I begin and end the album with edgier works, by Rawsthorne, where you can hear the influence of Hindemith, and Leighton, who was a bit of discovery for me. He’s one of the most interesting among neglected British composers; his Six Studies are superb, beautifully written. I’d like to do more of his music. I learned Rawsthorne’s Bagatelles from their dedicatee, Gordon Green, who was my teacher from age 10 to 17 and the most important musical influence of my life. I remember playing the music for Gordon and his eyes welling up with tears as he recalled his late friend.”

New York Variations

(Hyperion, 1998)

Hough talks enthusiastically about his “second home,” singling out the “magic vision” of the Manhattan skyline and the city’s great musical history “from the greatest jazz to Judy Garland and Horowitz at Carnegie Hall.” With this album of music by composers connected to New York City, the pianist curated another sort of musical-historical travelogue, including works that span seven decades: Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations (1930), Ben Weber’s Fantasia — Variations (1946), John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy (1976) and George Tsontakis’s Ghost Variations (1991). Both the Corigliano and the Tsontakis pieces received their first recordings on this album.

“These works vary widely in style, but the composers all understood and understand the beauty of tonal harmony — while pushing against tonality in their different ways,” Hough explains. “John Corigliano was tonal before being tonal was fashionable again, someone who realized that tonality could still be cutting edge. It’s inexplicable to think that his piece was written in 1976 but wasn’t recorded until I made this record 20 years later. The Copland is one of his first mature works — it’s so 1920s New York, all concrete and steel, tall buildings and bright confidence. But he didn’t compose in this astringent style for very long, going in a more lyrical direction. The work by Ben Weber is a dissonant work but also very lyrical and builds to a tremendous emotional climax. By the end of this eight-minute piece, you feel like you’ve been on a real journey. George Tsontakis wrote his Ghost Variations for Yefim Bronfman, but he never played it. It’s a huge piece — 30 minutes, 68 pages — but once I dug into the score, I realized that it was a masterpiece. So I ended up giving the premiere in Cleveland, and George dedicated it to me. To my ears, it’s one of the best piano pieces of the past 100 years.”

(Originally published in the autumn 2013 issue of Listen magazine… Stephen Hough has released nearly a dozen albums via Hyperion since then, as well as a book of essays: Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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