Whether giving your Harrods International Piano Series recital in the larger auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall, as opposed to the customary, somewhat more intimate, venue of the Queen Elizabeth Hall means one has finally arrived in the big time, is open to debate.
What is not open to debate though is Stephen Hough, who gave his recital at the RFH this Sunday (4 March), reached the top long ago. Houghs dazzling performances of standard repertoire, and more unusual and neglected works, have brought him a considerable international reputation. In addition he has made over thirty recordings and his Harrods recital coincides with the release on Hyperion of a new CD devoted to early Brahms - Four Ballades Op.10 and the massive Op.5 Sonata in F minor, the latter also in Houghs RFH recital.
Catching up with the frantically busy musician recently - by telephone to Barcelona - it seemed a good starting-point. "The Brahms Op.5 a titanic piece," Hough asserts, "cast on an epic scale in five movements which form a sort of arch. Whats even more remarkable in my view is its scope and ambition, especially when you consider that Brahms was just nineteen. But already from the very beginning one senses both a colossal intellect and a masterly confidence at work with the very opening line, which encompasses the entire keyboard. Yes, it does take some playing as its almost forty minutes in length, but its not really just the stamina required, its more the concentration necessary in making the entire structure work as a rounded entity."
"I think the Festival Hall programme which Ive put together and which Im incidentally touring around Spain at the moment, is hopefully both interesting and inviting. Theres a limited amount one can do in a piano recital and lots of people have done most things by now. Still, Ive decided for maybe the slightly odd pairing of Brahms and Chopin, so the Brahms Sonata which ends the first half mirrors Chopins Four Scherzos which ends the second. Ive also elected to look at both composers in slightly different lights, or through someone elses spectacles if you like, by including Busonis transcriptions of three of Brahmss Chorale Preludes for organ and Liszts transcriptions of three Chopin songs."
"I dont know if Id ascribe too much significance to my playing on my own in the Royal Festival Hall for the first time - of course Ive been there as a soloist with orchestras before. What Id say concerns me slightly more is that its a huge venue, but hopefully Ive found works big enough to fill it - with sound, I mean, not audience, though hopefully there will be one of those too! But at the same time, although these pieces are big in scope, one cant just hammer ones way through them from first bar to last. There has to be some subtlety and refinement of colour."
"On tour Im faced with a range of pianos, a range of halls and a range of acoustics. One has to make the most of what ones got on each occasion. To some extent it doesnt especially bother me as long as Im happy with the set-up in general, which I have been here in Spain. But maybe the London Harrods gig is slightly more daunting, partly because it is the RFH and partly because the concert coincides with the release of the Brahms disc. But as for nerves, no, not really any more: I just come out and play to the best of my ability."