Stephen Hough

Written by: Colin Anderson

Stephen Hough talks about Rachmaninov and Richmond

Stephen Hough has just recorded, with the Dallas Symphony and Andrew Litton, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody to very enthusiastic reviews (Hyperion CDA67501/2). These mostly live accounts are more in the composer’s flexible style than the now fashionable if inappropriate Hollywood-film-score approach. “The right kind of flexibility is important, which is part of the playing of the first thirty or so years of last century, as early as we have recordings, and presumably much before that. It’s a more extreme flexibility. Rachmaninov himself plays his second and third concertos with first subjects very straight, metronomic really, and second subjects incredibly loose, like an improvisation.” (Rachmaninov’s recordings are on Naxos.)

One real shock is the direct way Hough plays the famous opening bars of the second concerto (music used in the 1945 film Brief Encounter). “The second suffers terribly from constant stopping and starting; to me that loses something. Any great piece of music, like any building, has an architectural print. The great challenge is to avoid becoming dry and analytical and find an underlying grace and shape. Maybe the supreme example is Brahms: in his best pieces you don’t see the cleverness of how he uses the material; there isn’t one thread that hasn’t got some relation to what’s gone before. I would defend the way I do the beginning of Rachmaninov’s second concerto, but it’s not the only way; the composer doesn’t do it! The metronome mark is set from the very opening; there’s an inexorable quality to those opening chords leading us on in one breath. Another valid way is the big Russian-bell approach, but I wouldn’t go to the stake for either!”

Stephen, ever the musician, wants “to get to the source for every piece I play. I’m a sucker for moments of sentimentality but the great problem with Rachmaninov is giving it too much thickness and heaviness, like someone being on a bad diet for years; nothing fits, it’s all too heavy to run. I think this is incredibly energetic music with terrific sprung rhythm – he loved going to hear jazz in America.” The great fourth concerto hasn’t quite captured the public; it’s a masterpiece. “He had this huge gap when he wrote little, fifteen years that saw the First War, the motor car, the Russian Revolution, women’s liberation. The piece is a mix of nostalgia and wanting to be with the present, like a grandfather trying to understand his grandchildren’s interests. There’s a profound uneasiness about this work. It’s the hardest piece to play for all of us; there’s so much detail.”

On 7 December Stephen Hough plays for the Richmond Concert Society. Berg and Schubert occupy part one. “I can’t think of more contrasting Viennese works. The Berg is tortured writing using late-romantic, post-Tristan language; the Schubert is probably his most serene and diatonic piece. I love the fact that the composers were almost the same age when they wrote them, although it’s Berg’s first mature piece and Schubert’s is from near the end of his short life. The two works give so much to each other.”

Then comes Spanish music, indigenous and Spain-inspired, “a mix of visions of Spain. The Granados is a tribute to Schubert. There’s music from the greatest impressionist set ever written, Albéniz’s Ibéria, and then the greatest Spanish music for the piano, by Ravel and Debussy. Apparently Debussy spent one day in Spain yet he captures the purest kind of Spanish idiom. Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso has a different character to the orchestral version; the piano has more teeth, the discords are harsher.”

Great that a musician of Stephen Hough’s calibre should find time for a music society. “It’s wonderful that they are still running. The piano recital is such an important part of western musical history, the pianist coming to town. In the past, somewhere like Warrington would have had Rachmaninov one week, Backhaus the next, then Kreisler. Touring was just as arduous then, but you had more time, travel took longer, you could read and learn, it was more natural. You have to have discipline and work out exactly why you’re up on the stage.”

  • Stephen Hough recital, 7 December – German School, Petersham Road, near Richmond Station, tickets £10 on the night
  • Richmond Concert Society
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 1 December 2004 and is reproduced here with permission

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