English profiles

Amsterdam, 16 March 2004

I agreed to meet Stephen Hough at his hotel in Amsterdam at 10.30 a.m We agreed to combine the interview with (a belated) breakfast, but much to my embarrassment it wasn’t possible to find a place, where a decent breakfast could be served... We finally ended up in café Wildschut for some coffee and the interview....

Willem Boone (WB): What was your first musical impression?

Stephen Hough (SH): There was no classical music in our house and I only remember nursery rhymes like “Jack and Jill went up the hill”. When, on one occasion, I went to a friend’s house and saw a piano, I became fascinated and tried to play these nursey rhymes on it. I then began to ask for lessons so we eventually got a piano. Within a year I participated in the National Junior Piano Playing Competition and made it to the finals at the South Bank in London. I was the youngest competitor and although I didn’t win a prize, Gerald Moore, who was the Chairman of the jury, made a special point in his speech of saying that he thought I showed great promise and had a future ahead of me. A lot of hyped up things happened – someone wrote about me in the Daily Mail:“Could this be the new Mozart?”, but my parents  were very wise. They said “no”to all offers of concerts and managers and that was the best thing they could do at the time! They wanted me to have a normal life. I  then became quite obsessed with the piano and sigh-read lots of repertoire. I also composed a lot of music.

WB: Have there been any determinant musical experiences?

SH:  On recordings I was impressed by pianists from the past, e.g. Rachmaninov, Paderewski, Cortot, Godowsky. I found the playing of contemporary artists less interesting. In live concerts, I remember being thrilled by Richter and Ogden- this was at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

WB: When were you sure you wanted to become a professional musician?

SH: At the age of 6! I didn’t want to do anything else... although in my early teens, I did become less interested and didn’t listen to classical music. As I said, my parents were very wise, they wanted me to go to school. A lot of prodigies burn out in later life. Solomon, on the other hand, withdrew and came back later as a mature pianist. I often ask myself where you draw the line between art and circus.

WB: Can you ever get prepared for this job?

SH: I am not sure. Everybody deals with this in a different way. You definitely need a certain strength. You need to find resources for inspiration under the most uninspiring circumstances, e.g. a rehearsal straight after an 8 hour flight! You also need sensitivity and some natural originality. Performing is often a balancing-act,  on the one hand you don’t want to be original in a self-concious, artificial way  on the other hand, you don’t want to follow mindlessly what everyone else does. It has to be natural from the inside. I try not to listen too much to other pianists- you have to leave space for your own ideas to develop.

WB: Do you never listen to other pianists at all?

SH: Not very often, but it can be good if I am stuck with something. I sometimes wonder what others do with a problematic passage and it can be inspiring, even when it’s a bad performance. If even x or y plays something badly, then it’s less intimidating when I am not at my best!

WB:But if you listen, do you mainly listen to the same pianists?

SH: Yest, to Cortot or Friedman, whom I find very inspiring. Horowitz too, he has such creativity and sheer presence. I heard him only once in concert in 1982 at the Met in New York, and he knew exactly how to make the piano sound..... He was like a cup of espresso, a piano-energy boost!

WB: You an insatiable pianist who is curious about a lot of things, but is it always gratifying if you study for instance Godowsky’s Chopin Studies? No recording company seems interested in it, no agent asks you to programme this, so you hardly get the opportunity to play it or do you sight read very fast?

SH: I learn very thoroughly and don’t learn anything I won’t perform or record. Having said this, I have to choose very carefully, since I can’t play as much repertoire as I like. For instance, there was no way I would have learnt the Ghost Variations by George Tsontakis without intending to perform it in concert. Although I have never played the Von Sauer Concerto in concert, it was a coupling on record for Scharwenka’s 4rth Concerto.

WB: Don’t you have trouble to programme the Hummel Sonata you played in Amsterdam the other day (14 March)?

SH: No, everybody seems curous about the Hummel Sonatas since they were played so much by pianists from the past like Chopin and Liszt..

WB: Do you have carte blanche from your recording company?

SH:  Hyperion is a wonderful company, they never seem to say no. Although the more obscure, the better. I actually do play mainly standard repertoire, even though I haven’t recorded all of it, say Beethoven sonatas. For my previous recording company, Virgin, I recorded more well known repertoire: Schumann, Liszt, the Brahms concertos, yet a lot of people think I only play obscure repertoire. I think it’s important to play many different things. For example, I played Hummel Concertos and think it’s vital to know them in order to know the Chopin concertos properly. Chopin took so many of his ideas from Hummel and we can learn something about the way Chopin would have played his own concertos from understanding the earlier prototype. Liszt played Hummel’s concertos everywhere. To me it’s inexplicable that pianists don’t know Hummel’s music! People often see Chopin as a genius, whose ideas come from nowhere. That’s not true, of course. He was a genius, of course, but there is a clear link with the past. Chopin’s style is a continuation of the Classical, forward looking in its romanticism, not a kind of early model of a big romantic concerto. For instance he took the idea from Hummel of making the coda more virtuosic instead of writing a cadenza. I find it also inexplicable that pianists play Rachmaninov and don’t know his recordings!

WB: Speaking of Rachmaninov, you will record all his concertos on CD, maybe the question is rather forward, but do you think you can contribute anything to such a huge discography? They have been recorded so many times already....

SH: If I didn’t, I wouldn’t record them! And they have never been recorded as a “live concert”set yet. Frankly, I haven’t listened to many cycles. But many performances I hear do not satisfy me. There is a tradition since the 50’s to take heavy, slow tempi for instance the 3rd movement of the 3rd concerto where the coda of the 3rd movement is marked “vivacissimo”and often played too slowly. The 2nd Concerto can sound mundane and ordinary. It can work in a confortable sort of way, but I want to go beyond that.

WB: Is it true that the rythm of the 3rd movement of the 3rd concerto is particularly difficult to bring off?

SH: I don’t think there is anything in the rythm itself which is unusual or difficult, but the whole concerto is complicated because of the intricate inner figuration and the necessity of complete control of colour at every dynamic level. The 4rth Concerto is harder to bring off with the orchestra as a unified piece. But then again, everything is difficult! Mozart concertos are difficult too! Or Saint Seans’s 3rd Concerto, it’s one of the hardest pieces I ever studied. You hear every detail unlike Rachmaninov’s 3rd Concerto... Hummel Sonatas are difficult too, because the enormous technical demands are so audible and awkward. That’s one of the reasons Liszt was such a genius, he made things easier to play whilst sounding more difficult!

WB: You seem to have much affinity to Saint Seans, how is he considered in the UK, better than in France as your colleague Jean Philippe Collard said?

SH: He is underrated, although less and less as the years go by. It’s interesting what Collard said about Saint Seans being more popular in the UK than in France!

WB: Do you think you need to be French in order to understand Saint Seans?

SH: No, but you need at least knowledge where the music comes from. You could also ask the question “What is typically English music?”Does “English”mean Saxon? Viking? Elgar’s music has some deeply nostalgic quality, but is it typically English? Or is Byrd? Or Vaughan Williams? Gieseking was one of the greatest pianists in French music, whereas he was German, Cortot was great in Schumann, whereas he was Swiss-French.

WB: Is there any English piano music that si worthwile by the way?

SH: Yes, from a quite recent past, there is Ades, Birstwistle, Maxwell Davies amongst living composers. From the past, Bowen and Ireland also wrote beautiful music. Britten is not as impressive in his piano music as in his other works, Tippett also wrote for piano – four fine sonatas and a gorgeous concerto. It’s actually interesting that the first body of music written for a keyboard instrument comes from England – The Elizabethan virginalists Byrd and Gibbons. There were both perios of richness and huge gaps!

WB: You play contemporary music, do you feel it is the duty of a pianist to defend music of his own century?

SH: I haven’t commissioned anything myself directly, but I have been involved in commissions, e.g. the 2nd Concerto by Lowell Liebermann that was commissioned by Steinway. And Tsontakis and James MacMillan are both writing concertos for me- for Dalls Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. I find it interesting to see works by contemporary composers, no matter how unknown they are, but I receive so many scores.....I have to be sure it’s a good piece though I program a new composition with an orchestra.

WB: During your previous recital in Amsterdam, you played a contemporary work by Tsontakis, “Ghost Variations”, how did you get to know this piece?

SH: It was written for the pianist Yefim Bronfman, but it’s a very long piece of about 70 pages. He didn’t have time to learn it and the score had not been looked at since then. I discovered Tsontakis’music in an orchestral concert and spoke to him. He sent me the score and I looked at it and started to play it through and gradually fell in love with it. For me, it’s a greater piece than Prokofiev’s sonatas, which I feel are almost overrated, although the 7th Sonata and parts of the 6th and the 8th sonatas are wonderful. I have played the Ghost Variations dozens of times, and when I performed it at the Philharmonie in Berlin, for example, some of the orchestra players were really enthusiastic about the music and said it was one of the most extraordinary pieces they had heard. It’s a mixture of the heart and the head, and I think that’s what makes a piece great. I also heard a CD of his String Quartets and liked them. I thought they were fascinating pieces, real masterworks.

WB: Many former composers, e.g. Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were excellent pianists, what about contemporary composers? Do they have any understanding of the instrument?

SH: During the 20th century, there was a point when one became either a performer or a composer. However, Shostakovitsj was a good pianist and Strawinsky was a decent pianist. Of the contemporary composers,  Thomas Adès is a wonderful pianist. .

WB: How does it work when someone dedicates a piece to you, do you have a say in this? Do you give suggestions?

SH: I haven’t worked enough with composers. With Liebermann, who is an excellent pianist,  I made suggestions – some he liked, others he rejected. Some composers who don’t play the piano confuse complexity with virtuosity. They need to learn something from Liszt! 

WB: Does it ever happen that a composer comes to you with a score and that you don’t understand the score and feel unable to perform it?

SH: In contemporary music, different skills are involved sometimes. For instance, I couldn’t bring anything to the 2nd sonata of Boulez. I am glad that some people play such intensely complex scores- Pollini is extraordinary in the Boulez sonata of course. Although some modern music sometimes sounds as if has not been written for humans to perform! 

WB: Shura Cherkassky was very positive about your playing, what are your memories of this legendary pianist?

SH: I met him at the end of his life, but he was not a close friend. He was very supportive and warm. I was told recently that he said he was very flattered and honoured when he saw his picture hanging next to mine in Steinway Hall in New York! I was touched to hear this anecdote about someone I admired so much. For me, he was the ultimate instinctive player, he didn’t have a cerebral approach to music. He worked very hard and practised very slowly in a very detailed way. He actually never wanted to talk about music, but rather about holiday resorts and gossip! 

WB: Who else do you admire?

SH:  I mentioned Horowitz before, furthermore there is Richard Tauber.His rythmical freedom was so liberating and outrageous whilst remaining balanced! I also admire Kreisler, Kleiber and there is a Russian cellist, Shafran.

WB: Do you have any friends among pianists?

SH: I have had wonderful times with Steven Osborne, Imogen Cooper, Jean Yve Thibaudet, Olli Mustonen, Howard Shelly to name a few. There is a general friendliness I experience.

WB: Does classical music have a future?

SH: Certainly, although I am not sure whether it will be the same (a mobile phone rings with the melody of Für Elise, WB), but you see, as long as people still want Für Elise on their cell phone, although the future of classical music will be more profound than that I hope! It is slow but long in its life, whereas pop music is quick and fast, the latter is created to be disposable. People may come to classical music later in their lives. Young people rarely want to do socially what their parents do. What I do reject is the excessive marketing and manipulation by some of the big recording companies. This is a form of abuse by people who look solely to make money at the expense of music.

When we walk back to the hotel, Hough says something very interesting: “Do you realize that in the entire history of music artists have only actually been concertizing for one and a half centuries? That’s curious, isn’t it?”

© 2004 Willem Boone