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The miracle of music: An interview with Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough has been called a Renaissance Man.

In 2009 he was named one of the top twenty living polymaths by The Economist and Intelligent Life magazines. In addition to a full international concert schedule, the award-winning pianist and recording artist—who in 2014 was made a Commander of the British Empire—has been prolifically blogging on The Telegraph, recording, composing, painting, and giving master classes. As eloquent, expansive, and precise in his writing and discourse as he is in his playing, Hough offered many fascinating insights when we spoke recently about his own training, the shifts in education and performing, and other aspects of musical life in the twenty-first century.

Training

Hough observed that the bigger picture is sometimes lost in musical education today.

Hough's talents were primarily honed by two teachers with distinct approaches: Gordon Green and Derrick Wyndham.  The former had studied with Busoni's pupil Egon Petri and opened Hough's eyes and ears to a broader perspective of pianism and interpretation, while the latter was a former prodigy who withdrew from a performing career and would help Hough refine his technique. Reflecting on his studies with Green and how his training was different than the current norm, Hough observed that the bigger picture is sometimes lost in musical education today. "My lessons were not literally an hour long.  They began with coffee and chatting; my father was there too, and they'd be talking about various pipe tobaccos, and Green might put on a record. I remember one day he said, 'I heard this recording of Alfred Cortot playing Chopin's Etude in A-Flat, Op. 25, No. 1—just listen to the wonderful way he uses the pedal at the end,' and he put this track on and there's this pedal at the end. I mean, I can still remember that moment—I would have been eleven or twelve at the time—and I just remember my eyes opening, hearing that wonderful color. 

"It was all about just opening up these ideas and wanting you to develop your own way of thinking, which I think is in danger so often today. It was so different from what we often have now, which is that from Day One, the eye is on winning a competition, being famous, wearing that suit or dress on stage.  That has become totally the forefront. Parents will take children to teachers who have had a lot of competition winners, and teachers want to have a lot of competition winners to earn a living—one has to be practical about this. I don't blame the teachers; I think everyone is under tremendous pressure.

"Wyndham was "a very different personality from Gordon... very shy and introverted," Hough recounted. "He apparently had a significant career before the war—as a child he'd played with Furtwängler, and he studied with Schnabel and Rosenthal—but he had been in the hospital with a nervous breakdown and he simply couldn't go on stage and couldn't play." Hough learned a manner of technical precision from Wyndham that grounded his pianistic art. "I'd play something for him and I thought it had a certain élan, and he said, 'Yes, but you couldn't record it like that, it's just too much of a mess. Just play it again—if you drop a note, we'll just see why.' He had a very different way, much more analytical, much more technically based, but I feel very grateful, as he taught me a lot of ways to practice. He also had this idea of thinking about the geography of the keyboard: 'So if you want to play that C there, then this finger has to be in this position in order to do so.' This was almost a sort of physically analytical way of playing."

Practice

Those who admire Hough's artistry and incredible productivity might be surprised to hear him claim that he has a somewhat lazy disposition. "At school I was very, very lazy—I barely got through," he noted, wryly adding, "I was very close to being in a supermarket stacking shelves." Regardless, his current stature and pianism demonstrate that Hough clearly knows how to practice and achieve results. I observed him giving brilliant practice suggestions when teaching a masterclass, showing the method by which he spent hours working on a particular short passage in Rachmaninoff 's Third Concerto in order to gain the motor control necessary to play it fluidly. 

When I brought up the topic of practice, Hough stated, "How you practice is how you play. And it's so often the case that bad practicing and wasting time practicing are the reasons people don't progress or don't play well. So I think it's very important. It is also important not to over-practice, and not to become neurotic about things, just to find solutions. If Green's point was that it's not how you're playing now, it's how you're going to play in ten years that interests me, then it's not how you play in the practice room, it's how that playing in the practice room will be when you are on stage that is important." 

In two articles available on his blog at The Telegraph, Hough gives suggestions to help both amateurs and professionals improve their practice regimen. He points out that professionals will spend more time practicing than they will on stage, and that using that time well is essential. Quoting Green's statement, "in practice a perfectionist, in performance a realist," Hough suggested, "prepare assiduously, tirelessly at home, but when onstage accept the situation at hand without wishing the piano were more in tune, the audience were more appreciative (or larger), you hadn't made a mess of that octave passage and so on." He turned a common observation on its side when he stated, "There is no such thing as a difficult piece. There are merely moments which are problematic." He added, "It is essential to focus on why something is not good, and in almost every case there is a clear, logical reason... mistakes occur for the pianist when fingers fall in the wrong place." Focusing one's attention on what is required to help one's fingers and hands be in the right place is key.

Recordings as a resource

Moving from technique to inspiration, Hough spoke of the impact of hearing the great Alfred Cortot's unique pianism shine through a pre-war recording. Knowing that Hough shares my passion for historical recordings, I asked for his thoughts about students listening to such performances from bygone eras. "I do think it's an invaluable resource to be able to hear how people played two or three generations ago, people who were playing within the lifetime of composers or the composers playing themselves. But the balance to that is that I don't think if you're playing a specific piece you should go root out everybody's recording to see what they do and copy it. I think it's a matter of listening to enough recordings to absorb the style, a basic understanding of rubato, and how sound and rubato go together, which is so important: it's not just a matter of the extreme freedom that someone like Ignaz Friedman takes, it's that every note is shaded in a way that matches that rubato, so you can't have one without the other. Well, you can have the sound without the timing, you can shade in that way—but if you adjust the time without the sound, it just sounds ridiculous." 

However, Hough warned about being dogmatic with one's approach to understanding how music was played in the past. "We don't want to get stuck with a sort of historicism so that it can only be played this way. But I just think that we do need to understand certain basic things—like, with the tempo markings of Chopin Nocturnes, when he did give metronome markings, why are they so fast? Because it's an imitation of a coloratura soprano, not of a very slow, turgid, thick piano sound, and a singer has to breathe. Then you hear the great recordings of the nocturnes and you hear a certain flow, a certain waver, the rubato is tucked around the steady left hand, and you read what Chopin wrote about keeping the left hand keeping time. All of this gives you the information from which you can then form your own interpretation.

"And sometimes it's great when people go wildly outside of that. We know that Rachmaninoff liked fast tempos, but there's nothing wrong with someone coming and giving a fantastic performance at a slow tempo if it really has its own purpose and its own life and its own honesty. None of this is to be rigid about old style, but not to understand anything about it seems unforgivable. If someone is playing Rachmaninoff and has never heard a recording of Rachmaninoff playing—I can't understand that. We're living in a great time with resources like YouTube, but we have to be careful that we don't allow our own horizons to be shrunk."

Repertoire

One way to expand the horizons of both the performer and listener is to explore the vast array of music in the repertoire. Hough's own early successes included recordings of more obscure works such as the Hummel Piano Concertos and the delightful forgotten encores found on his legendary disc The Piano Album, and he continues to champion both rarer and contemporary music (including his own compositions). I asked him about how pianists can successfully broaden the scope of what they present to audiences. "It's about programming them in an imaginative way. I think one of the problems is that people put on all-contemporary concerts, but it's nice to have a contemporary piece in between a Beethoven Sonata and a Chopin Scherzo, or something like that. That's one thing; another is just being curious and constantly being open to looking at different pieces. Medtner is one interesting case of someone who was virtually unplayed, but over the last ten years a number of pianists have been picking him up. I heard Kissin play one of the Medtner sonatas, and obviously Marc-André Hamelin and other people have been making fantastic recordings—Sudbin as well with the concertos—and he's finally coming more into the repertoire.

"On the other hand, I think we also shouldn't neglect the well-known works. Both of us are very involved professionally with music, but there are people out there who have never heard Kreisleriana or Carnaval, and those pieces are famous because they're wonderful, so it's a balance, really. We should just never pull out the same old chestnuts every single year, we should be looking at the late Schumann or more obscure works—I keep meaning to look at Clementi Sonatas more—but it's important to put it within a good context. I think often people who play weird obscure pieces kind of exult in it in a way that is a little bit naughty—'I'm playing this music you've never heard before'—and it becomes a sort of hobby, something strange as a sideline. I think the key is to make this mainstream—Horowitz did a lot of this. He played a Clementi Sonata and it was not a whole half (of a program) of Clementi Sonatas, it was within the context of other well-known pieces, and I think that's probably the way ahead.

"It may be nice to see in music conservatories and even in competitions some of these works listed so that somebody has to choose one of the following, and you'd have a Hummel, a Dussek, a Clementi Sonata—I think that would be very interesting, as it would force people at these entry-level competitions to think about this repertoire. Or with concertos, maybe you could have a category where, yes, you can play Rachmaninoff, but your second concerto has to be from this list, which could include Moscheles or Hummel—it could be quite interesting. You can tell a lot about a pianist if they can bring to life music that's not very well known, and actually, I have to say, music that's maybe not first-rank. It's very interesting to see what somebody can do with a work that's not the greatest music, and it can show a lot of pianistic imagination if someone can bring one of those works off."

"Success"

"We should never pull out the same old chestnuts every single year."

The image of "success" that drives many aspiring performers may be at odds with what actual accomplishment is and what is truly required to get there. When Hough and I discussed the commonly held notion that playing at certain famous concert halls is a sign of success, he mentioned having heard Charles Dutoit speak of driving Martha Argerich around Germany early in her career for a multitude of concerts in small towns. All performers need to do due diligence, and Hough himself continues to play in smaller halls as well as in the world's most prestigious venues. "Think about someone like Liszt—he played under the most terrible conditions so often: on upright pianos, with broken strings. When playing in smaller places, first of all, it's great not to have a concert on the radio, because you can then feel free to experiment—nobody leaves the practice studio with a piece and for the first time feels completely confident with it, it's always got to bed in, and the only way to do that is by playing it in public. I think also, in a way, that performers are messengers for the composers. To bring that message only to glamorous places seems to me to go against the spirit of everything that composers were about, and I think smaller places, especially communities that are far away, can be a wonderful experience sometimes. I've had some of my best concert experiences in obscure places, when you really feel like people are there because they are desperate to hear a live concert."

Inspiration

While concerts can be something new and exciting for the audience, to the performer who plays the same work umpteen times there is the risk of losing spontaneity and inspiration. I asked Hough how he manages to keep his interpretations fresh and alive when performing a composition repeatedly. "I think you have a basic conception of the piece as you learn it—the broad strokes are there—but there are lots of details which will change every night. Not so much consciously, but especially when playing a recital, I always feel when in the wings that I'm going out with a blank canvas. I know the notes, I know basically the direction I want those notes to go, but I don't want to have the final plan. It's a bit like someone giving a speech or talk—they have notes, but if they literally read every word, it's lifeless really. You want someone to improvise, you want someone to take off. If you're thinking of what it takes to be an instrumentalist, I think one of the attributes is that you never get tired of the music that you're playing, and I don't think that's something that you can work on, it just is. With an actor, I marvel at the end of a six-month run when an actor's been doing eight shows a week and it still seems incredibly fresh and that actor is obviously on fire when he or she is on stage.  That's not something you learn—that's why that is a great actor."

Hough's passionate explanations and descriptions of music indicate that this same fire fuels his performances and activities as a magnificent interpreter and musician. "I am more moved by music now than I was twenty years ago. I find that sometimes in a performance, a tear will form in my eye that I wasn't expecting. Just the other night I played the "Emperor" Concerto, which I haven't played for a number of years, and I was just completely overwhelmed in the slow movement by how beautiful this music is—and it's a piece that I've known so much, a piece that I've played a lot and I've heard a lot. But I thought, how could anyone ever not find this thrilling? And then the last movement is so joyful—where is this coming from? How this music came out—to me, it's just a miracle.

The miracle of music

"The world that we live in is pretty miraculous," Hough continued. "These miracles we mustn't let go of... I think it goes through into every area of life. All these things of beauty—perhaps sometimes we do need to remind ourselves of how wonderful they are and that we shouldn't take them for granted. I think that attitude towards music is what keeps performances fresh without our having to try to find ways to do so." With this love of music and of life so evident and expressed so potently in his playing, teaching, and writing, it is little wonder that Hough has been able to continue to inspire himself and countless others in a remarkable career now entering its fourth decade. Long may he continue to do so.

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