“This burning quality and compulsion to play should be there in every human being. In order to live a full life, you have to burn about something.”
– Stephen Hough, British concert pianist
Today, on 22 November 2011, British concert pianist Stephen Hough turned 50. In an era where many performers devote most of their entire lives to music, Hough is a bit of a Renaissance man.
Not only does he perform some of the greatest piano concertos on the major stages of the world, he also paints, composes music, writes poetry, collects bow hats and blogs about anything and everything, music included.
Hough has recorded over 50 CDs which include live performances of Rachmaninoff’s four Piano Concertos. His recording of the five Saint-Saens Piano Concertos won the Gramophone Record of the Year in 2001 and was later voted Gold Disc, “winner of winners” in a poll commemorating 30 years of the award.
His approach to familiar and popular works by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin is to inject a fresh ideas in lyricism and sound with his playing. His recent recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in the spirit of the composer’s own playing received widespread acclaim.
He prefers not to listen to the interpretation of famous and popular works of composers other pianists so that he can develop his own “language” and to “start with a clean sheet”. This approach means that his interpretations are usually different and exciting with a breath of fresh air than is not tainted by the norms of how a piece “should be” played.
In the interesting and engaging video below, he talks about why this piece is so important in the concert repertoire.
Stephen Hough talks about Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2
(Listening tip: use a set of good headphones)
In his recent recording of Chopin’s complete waltzes, he performed on a Yamaha CFIIIS concert grand piano because he felt the nuance, textures and transparency of Chopin’s cantabile style was far more possible on this piano than others.
Stephen Hough plays Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major wearing a bow hat
(Listening tip: use a set of good headphones)
Indeed, I could feel his humour and playfulness when listening to his interpretation of Chopin’s waltz in A flat major above, a flirtatious tease that is Marilyn Monroe-like and yet having total regard to Chopin’s melodic genuis.
Perhaps his love for bow hats makes these waltzes all the more whimsical, works which he consider as “lightweights or mere souffles” but adds “who doesn’t enjoy one of those?!”
Incidentally, Hough was in Sydney in October 2011 giving a recital entirely comprising piano sonatas. His chosen program of “strange sonatas” include contrasting the familiarity of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata against the thought-provoking sonatas of Scriabin and fittingly ends with Liszt’s legendary piano sonata in B minor on the day of the composer’s 200th birthday.
Many music lovers may not realise that Hough became an Australian citizen in 2005 though maintaining his British citizenship. His father was born in Mayfield, New South Wales and he loves the multi-cultural feel of Sydney and the “wildness of its position on the edge of the ocean”.
The issues that interest him are immensely varied. He talks about theology, the fine arts, food and enjoys writing about them in his blog. He has also interviewed the great pianist Shura Cherkassky and written articles about whether you can tell if a pianist is gay and the relationship between homosexuality and musical expression.
A quip on what he thinks about all the prestigious concert halls around the world, Hough says:
“Lets not pretend this is a nicely air-conditioned room. This is a furnace at times and so it should be because you are dealing with things which are only the absolute half of what it means to live a meaningful life”.
Stephen, your passion is inspiring and your wit infectious. You remain one of my favourite pianists to listen to and I wish you a very happy birthday.
Born in Heswall in the UK, Stephen Hough (pronounced “huff”) began piano lessons at the age five. In 1978, he was a finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition and won the piano section. In 1982, he won the Terrence Judd Ward in England and took first prize at the Naumburg International Piano Concerto in New York in 1983.
He holds as Master’s degree from the Julliard School and was the first classical musician to be the recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship in 2001, an honour sometimes known as the genius grant.
He is an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he is a visiting Professor, and a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where he is the International Chair of piano studies.
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