An Interview with Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough is a familiar visitor to Australia’s concert halls – and this much-loved British pianist has a fascinating story to tell about his own Antipodean roots. But then, everything about Hough is fascinating. He explores a vast range of repertoire, records prolifically for the Hyperion label and enjoys lively chamber music relationships with such artists as the cellist Steven Isserlis, with whom he has toured twice for Musica Viva. His artistic activities extend to composition, painting and writing – he has been named one of ‘20 Living Polymaths’ by The Economist – and he is now working on a novel. Indeed, he has evolved almost accidentally into the modern-day equivalent of the great “golden age” composer-pianists of the past.
Far from finding his intense travel schedule as a performer a hindrance to creativity, Hough seems to thrive on it. “I find being on the road is actually more creative than being at home,” he says. “I might get musical ideas while warming up backstage. And often there is more time on tour: for instance, with American orchestras if I have three concerts in a week, the second and third nights I have nothing to do until the evening concert except practise. If I have a piece to write I assemble sketches throughout the year, all the time; finally comes the moment when I sit down and put it all together.”
Hough’s programme for his Musica Viva tour includes his own latest piano work, the Sonata No.3, ‘Trinitas’ – which follows in his output hot on the heels of two other sonatas, the first of which was co-commissioned by Musica Viva, the Wigmore Hall in London and the Louvre in Paris.
Initially, he says, he had not been eager to write music to perform himself – but gradually this outlook has altered. “What’s funny is that I hadn’t been planning to do that,” he says. “But the commission of the Sonata No.1 started me off, and I think I got over that point.” He enjoys the fact that other pianists are playing his works now, but he also likes “having control over the performance myself”.
The Sonata No.3 qualifies as an Australian piece, he half-jokes, because he has an Australian passport. He grew up in Cheshire in the north of England and discovered his Australian connection relatively late. “My father was born in Australia,” he explains. “His parents were married in India, where they were involved in the steel business in India; they then went to Newcastle, New South Wales, where the Australian steel industry was based. My father was born in 1926, and then my grandmother took him back to India after a few months. He never saw his father again. His father tried to correspond with him, but his mother intercepted the letters and they did not make contact until much later.
“I found that I was already Australian by law, because if someone was born there before 1947, it made their children automatically Australian. Getting an Australian passport seemed a nice way to tie together the loose ends of a slightly tragic story.”
In the new sonata, commissioned jointly by the Catholic magazine The Tablet and the Barbican Centre, Hough – whose Catholic faith is a driving force in his creativity – has been inspired by the symbolism of the number three and what he sees as the parallel dogmas of the Trinity in the church and of 12-tone serialism in music.
It forms part of a programme that begins with Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784, one of the composer’s most concentrated and tragic piano works. “The whole first half is a progression from darkness to light,” Hough says. “In the Schubert there almost isn’t any light at all. Even when it goes into the major, it’s more heart-breaking than it is in the minor. Then the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue is an incredible, deep-suffering piece that, at the end, has an amazing opening-out: you really do come out of the darkness.
“There’s a triptych idea behind this as well: the three-movement Schubert, the Franck in three parts, and my sonata being the ‘Trinitas’. Then there is Liszt: I feel a very strong connection myself with Liszt because I play so much of his music, but also between Liszt and Schubert because Liszt’s transcriptions brought Schubert’s song literature to a wider audience.”
And so the programme comes full circle – rather like Hough’s Australian connection. “I love going to Australia,” he remarks. “I love the quality of the light and the space – not just geographical, but also artistic. The traditions there are much less lengthy and ‘stuck’. There’s room to feel that you can bring this music and it’s fresh and new.”
Stephen Hough tours Australia for Musica Viva 14 April – 2 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/hough