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  1. The Culture Interview
9 December 2021

Pianist Stephen Hough: “My teenage years were difficult”

The musician, composer, painter and author on his gradual ascent to renown.

By Michael Henderson

Conductors, orchestral musicians often joke, only come good after they have turned 60. What about pianists? Many were thrust towards stardom as adolescents, burdened with expectations impossible to live up to. For every Daniel Barenboim, who first performed in public at the age of seven and is still filling the stage 72 years later, there are dozens who have faded from view.  

Stephen Hough, who was born on the feast day of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, has earned his reputation gradually. “My teenage years,” he said when we met in Liverpool, “were difficult.” Decade by decade he has acquired the maturity that transforms musicians of promise into those of true distinction. For a musician, as opposed to a “personality”, it’s the best way. It’s no surprise to learn that the pianist he admires most is Alfred Cortot, who is known for his exceptional refinement.

This has been a particularly productive two years for Hough. In early 2020 he recorded the late pieces of Brahms (the one with the beard), and since then he has released an album of Schumann’s Arabeske, Kreislerina and Fantasie and of the Chopin Nocturnes, performances that find composer and performer in splendid alignment. The Schumann disc justifies the use of that much-abused adjective “majestic”. We hear a pianist of reason and fancy. Or, as Schumann would have said, of Florestan and Eusebius. 

Hough described Schumann as “the archetypal romantic”. “Schubert was the first composer to offer that private view of the soul, the salon music which became the vocabulary of the 19th century,” he said. “Schumann was more damaged. There is something disturbing about his music, and also moving. He is letting you into a world even his best friends might not see.” 

[See also: Can a British MP “fix” music streaming?]

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“Schumann is sometimes ungainly and messy, but that doesn’t take away from his genius. The messy aspect is what I like, in Schumann and in other works of art. I find Bach, for instance, hard to love. It’s almost too perfectly shaped.” 

Brahms, Hough said, offers “a great example of head and heart combined”: his late work, in particular, is “deeply emotional, but it speaks with an emotion that is veiled”. Chopin, he admits, “is probably my desert island composer, with that tension between the classical and the romantic. It’s music that comes out of improvisation yet could not be written any other way. When I finished recording the Nocturnes I felt it was the best of me. The best I could possibly do.” 

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In November, Hough performed that mighty first concerto of Brahms (the Brahms without a beard), with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the city’s famous concert hall, 200 yards from the house where, as an 11-year-old, he took his first steps. “My father used to drive me in from Warrington for lessons with Gordon Green at 33 Hope Street,” Hough said. “I heard Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, at the Philharmonic. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had practised at Mr Green’s house.” 

It was a fine performance of the Brahms, received by an attentive audience. Liverpool concert-goers love their orchestra, whose new chief conductor, the Venezuelan Domingo Hindoyan, is settling into his first season. 

From Liverpool it was off to Manchester, another key location of his early life, for some Saint-Saens with the BBC Philharmonic. The teenage Hough was schooled, not always happily, at Chetham’s School of Music before moving across town to the Royal Northern College of Music, “where everything changed”. After a postgraduate degree at the Julliard School in Manhattan, Hough won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in New York in 1983 and that perplexing thing called the “career” took off. Though, as Simon Rattle has often said, “’career’ is not a musical term”. 

[See also: Stravinsky the shapeshifter]

At 60, Hough has not just been garlanded with honours for his piano-playing: he is also a composer, novelist and essayist, and has exhibited paintings. He divides his time between London and New York. He spent the months of lockdown in both cities, reflecting on those early years, and the book that emerged will be published by Faber in 2022. In part it is a tribute to his father, Colin, a steel executive who wrote poetry towards the end of his life, and died at 54.

On 8 December the great Takács Quartet presented the world premiere of Les Six Rencontres (The Six Meetings) in California – Hough, a regular collaborator, wrote the piece at their request. It is a work that links two contrasting French masters, Ravel and Dutilleux. “Ravel represented the 1910s, and Dutilleux the 1970s, so I wanted to explore the period in between. It inhabits the tonal world of Poulenc.” The first European performance will be at Wigmore Hall in London on January 20.

There is also a film score on the go, for a movie to be shot in Vienna. Still, Stephen Hough remains a musician first and foremost, and ends the year back where he started. When I asked what’s next, he said: “I must explore more Bach.”