At his Fingertips…

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

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. Hough’s 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 Hough’s 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. What’s 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 it’s almost forty minutes in length, but it’s not really just the stamina required, it’s more the concentration necessary in making the entire structure work as a rounded entity.”

“I think the Festival Hall programme which I’ve put together and which I’m incidentally touring around Spain at the moment, is hopefully both interesting and inviting. There’s a limited amount one can do in a piano recital and lots of people have done most things by now. Still, I’ve decided for maybe the slightly odd pairing of Brahms and Chopin, so the Brahms Sonata which ends the first half mirrors Chopin’s Four Scherzos which ends the second. I’ve also elected to look at both composers in slightly different lights, or through someone else’s spectacles if you like, by including Busoni’s transcriptions of three of Brahms’s Chorale Preludes for organ and Liszt’s transcriptions of three Chopin songs.”

“I don’t know if I’d ascribe too much significance to my playing on my own in the Royal Festival Hall for the first time – of course I’ve been there as a soloist with orchestras before. What I’d say concerns me slightly more is that it’s a huge venue, but hopefully I’ve 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 can’t just hammer one’s way through them from first bar to last. There has to be some subtlety and refinement of colour.”

“On tour I’m faced with a range of pianos, a range of halls and a range of acoustics. One has to make the most of what one’s got on each occasion. To some extent it doesn’t especially bother me as long as I’m 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.”

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