British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough undertakes his third national concert tour for Musica Viva in April and May. His recitals are invariably distinguished by a surprising blend of the cerebral and the visceral – music that engages the heart as well as the mind, and that is delivered with precise yet entirely organic artistry.
On this concert tour Stephen’s program focuses on a trinity of his favourite composers, Schubert, Franck and Liszt. Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784 is in three movements, as is Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and these two works form for Hough a linked musical journey from darkness to light.
It is easy to forget the seminal influence that Liszt’s music had on the evolution of compositional technique in the 19th century. Like Hough, Liszt was a remarkable pianist as well as an extraordinary composer, and his music has inspired Stephen as a committed advocate of its performance, as well as by the craftsmanship of its structure.
The glue of the program is Stephen’s own Third Piano Sonata ‘Trinitas’, inspired by the importance of the number three within his Catholic faith, and how ‘trinity’ in the church might also possibly relate to 12-tone serialism in music. As one should always expect with this surprising musician, matters of the intellect are bound to resonate with the emotional and the personal in his perpetual search for the transcendental.
Carl Vine AO
Stephen Hough tours Australia 14 April – 2 May 2016. Book your tickets here: musicaviva.com.au/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
Friday, October 21, 2011: a quaint moment in Steinway history as Stephen Hough signed and fingerprinted a key of one of the pianos at the Theme and Variations studio in Willoughby. The British virtuoso was in Australia finishing up his Musica Viva national tour, and joins Lang Lang and other illustrious musicians in Sydney’s very own Steinway fingerprint bank!
[From Limelight Magazine]
Stephen Hough’s tour is now well and truly over, and Stephen has arrived in the US for his next concerts, however we’d like to reflect on his time in Australia by reposting the text of the talk he gave at Musica Viva‘s Sydney gala.
I was delighted when the folks at Musica Viva asked me to give a talk at this dinner. But then they told me the topic: pleasure. Now even though I have an Australian passport there’s enough of the Englishman left in me to worry whether there wasn’t something almost indecent about discussing such a subject with people you don’t know very well.
I’m joking of course. Pleasure, whether we ‘talk’ about it or not, is like a magnet guiding our every move in life. It was the evolutionary path which led all of us to the place where today we live and move and have our being. It’s the carrot guiding us to do what’s good for us and avoid what’s bad for us. Food and sex, to take two obvious examples, are pleasurable because they ensure our existence. Pleasure is simply the way our bodies are designed to function, whether that pleases us or not.
And yet, if someone said to us: “All I live for is pleasure” I think we’d find it rather strange, even a little disturbing. I don’t think we’d entirely trust that person, or take him or her seriously. We’d have the sense that anything or anyone which got in the way of their pursuit of pleasure would quickly become dispensable. “All I live for is … music or money or justice or my family”; these may seem limited by themselves and we may have different reactions to a life built on any of these categories alone, but at least they somehow make sense. We may be hardwired to live guided by principles of pleasure, but it has to be as the fruit of something else. If we pursue it as an abstract ideal, outside of the tangible goods (important word) which bring it to us, it will most likely turn bad. If we go foraging for pleasure like a pig for truffles we will probably find that our hands get dirty and the fungus itself is lost – and a fine truffle is a terrible thing to lose! In a strange way, to reach out and grasp the bubble of pleasure it to pop it. To enjoy those bubbles requires us to let them float past. To shape our lives by pleasure alone would be like forming the rooms of our house with sheets of wallpaper but no walls on which to hang them.
Pleasure is an essential part of being human and, therefore, has within it a spark of the divine. As one of those strange creatures known as a Catholic, I believe that all things created are essentially good – or, as the Jewish understanding goes, life on earth is God in search of humanity, not the other way around. And yet I’m only too aware that religion has probably been the main force trying to root out pleasure across our planet, across the centuries. Let’s not even talk about sex, which has been fenced around, poisoned within an inch of its life, suffocated … despite the fact that we sort of need it to keep this show on the road. Music has been banned in some Islamic cultures, and dancing has been banned in some Christian cultures – so many things which flavour our lives with joy and ecstasy have been the subjects of suspicion and repression.
And yet, understood correctly, fasting or celibacy are not about despising pleasure, but rather acknowledging its importance, its value … its danger. When a monk gives up food he is voluntarily giving up something good, something to be treasured, something to be grateful for. When a nun gives up family life it’s a similar situation, or should be – she wants to offer God the most precious gift possible, with all of its pleasures and treasures. And beyond this life, it is only by some analogy with pleasure that the promise of life after death (heaven) has made any sense – eternal pleasure: if we deny pleasure now we can have it later for ever and ever – another kind of carrot. Of course we need a taste of it now to tempt us to its permanence later, which has made the whole question so confusing and contradictory. Perhaps we’ll leave that topic for another occasion! But I think the important issue here is with the pursuit of pleasure rather than the pursuit of the good things which carry pleasure in their trail. The roots of pleasure are the acts of a good life – well-being rather than well-feeling. Avoiding pain at all cost will not give us pleasure, but conquering our fear of pain may well help us along the way. And sharing pleasure (or making others happy) is one of the surest ways of experiencing pleasure or happiness ourselves.
All of this leads us to consider one of the main paradoxes of pleasure: we grasp it either as an anticipation of the future or as a reflection of the past, but it grasps us (usually without our control) in the present. We often look forward to a holiday or look back on a birthday party with greater pleasure than in the moment of partaking. We relish or savour pleasure in the past or in the future; the present moment of its visitation flies past too fast.
And so to music. It is the perfect example of this pleasure principle in the arts. Whereas with a book or a painting we control the time in which we experience the beauty, with a piece of music the beauty is carried along in the passage of time itself, a ‘passing’ (a journey and a decay) which is the pleasure. The notes vibrate past our ears, into our ears, in a sequence of sounds. Music does not have a ‘moment’ like the first bite of a rhubarb crumble, or the climax point of love-making, or the very last day at work before the holidays; music’s magic evaporates in front of our ears, leaving only a trail, an echo, a memory behind. Yet the very handicap of its transience is its greatest asset because it enables us to enjoy it over and over again. It creates its own time-frame of relish unlike books or paintings. And even though the sounds disappear, in classical music the score remains, the formula which can be mixed into potency once more – musicians as the witch-doctors of these ‘controlled frequencies’.
Related to this is one of the reasons I believe music needs tonality. It is part of the internal swing of pleasure and pain mirroring that of our lives. We desire, we crave the pleasure of concord after the pain of discord. And to refuse to resolve is to prevent the future repetition of the very pain that in turn allows the resolution. It is to freeze-frame something which only has meaning in ebb and flow. It is to halt the intangible ‘procession’, the journey which is music. For me (although I readily admit that others have an opposite and perfectly valid viewpoint), music which is irresolvably atonal has nowhere to go. It is a poor hamster on a wheel instead of a stallion galloping freely in the fields. I love a lot of atonal music, don’t get me wrong! But it no longer excites me when it is no longer creating tension against its opposite. Take away tonality from atonality and you are left with … A. All black or all white is myopic; it is in the greys where the colours begin to form, where the vision begins to entrance.
I’ve mentioned intangibility in music. It’s a strange concept for me in a way because I am ‘hands-on’ the keyboard for so much of my life. Playing the piano is very physical, and involves muscles and tendons from fingers through arms to shoulder and back. And yet all of this is to awaken sounds which resonate invisibly in the air. The existence of the vibrations is real of course – measurable as sound waves and controllable as such; but these waves are beyond touch in the way the music they create touches us. And here music is related to perfume, another real yet intangible art form existing for the purpose of pleasure. Perfume requires a chemist’s expertise. It isn’t exactly invisible or literally intangible – from bottle to spray we see and feel the liquid – but its effect on us is indeed unseen and mysterious. It awakens memories and it alters moods in a very similar way to music. It is also a ‘time-traveller’ – passing, evaporating and changing with us, quite literally as it blooms and then dies on our skin. Perfume is as ‘useless’ as music, but it has been said that great art, by definition, has to be useless. The minute we harness it, try to use it for a purpose other than to appreciate its intrinsic value, we de-struct the magic.
Puddings usually have little nutritional value and thus rarely have a purpose other than pleasure. Actually one of my greatest pleasures when dining is to see the extra cutlery laid indicating that something sweet and fattening is on the way. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to facilitate our mutual pleasure by speaking my last words and calling for dessert to be served.
Stephen Hough is back in Sydney and having a well earned rest day, having not only performed but spoken about the links between music and perfume at last night’s Sydney Gala event. We’ve heard a rumour Stephen might head to the opera tonight to witness Richard Mills’ The Love of the Nightingale. Stephen’s final concert during this current Australian tour is tomorrow at City Recital Hall Angel Place at 2pm.
Stephen has wowed audiences all around the country on this tour. Queensland Musica Viva committee member (and Stephen’s friend through his blog and Twitter) John O’Leary commented “[Stephen’s performance] was overwhelming. By the time Stephen finished the Liszt sonata, I felt as though my guts had been ripped out, but in a good way. And I couldn’t believe that he did the Debussy L’Isle Joyeuse as one of his encores. I’ll take a week to settle down again.”
We’re looking forward to a stunning end to Stephen’s tour!
Steve Moffatt, Rouse Hill Times
19 October 2011
As well as being the complete pianist, Englishman Stephen Hough is a philosopher, theologian and one of Britain’s most popular cultural bloggers.
Fascinated by what he sees as “moral dilemmas” – who are we to judge an artist like Richard Strauss’s response to the Nazi regime, for example, or the thorny question of child abuse and the Catholic church – Hough is forever thinking outside the square.
He could easily have trained as a Catholic priest, but forsook that calling for music. He is now considered by many the finest pianist of his generation.
It came as no surprise that a musician as rounded as he should choose a program of “strange sonatas” for his latest visit to Australia for Musica Viva.
Beethoven’s Moonlight is no stranger to our ears but it shocked his contemporaries for breaking the fast-slow-fast sonata mould.
In fact this work is now so familiar that performers seem to shy away from playing it live, which means that we miss out on one of the fiercest and most thrilling fast movements that Beethoven wrote.
The works Hough presented were all spectacular showcases for his pianistic skills, but equally fascinating were the characters of the men behind the works.
The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was by all accounts a totally obnoxious individual – his contemporary Rachmaninoff described him as “a swine” – but his use of harmony and tonal colours influenced many 20th century composers.
Egotistical to the extreme, he believed himself to be godlike, perhaps because he was born on Christmas Day.
Liszt, too, was a fascinating character. Like Hough he too was attracted to the church but chose the piano and later a composing career. His Sonata in B minor, which closed this concert, is one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire.
The other composer on the program was Hough himself. His sonata Broken Branches is both an acknowledgment of Janacek’s cycle On An Overgrown Path and a reference to Christ’s quote in St John’s Gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.”
This work received its Australian premiere. Hough explained that Musica Viva wanted him to play a work by an Australian composer. As he is a citizen here he decided to compose a piece himself.
“I wanted to try and capture a feeling of despair and sadness in as little music as I possibly could,” he said.
Although dark, it ends with a section titled “spring”. “It’s the same wound, but the wound is no longer bleeding,” Hough explains.
This superb and thought-provoking recital is repeated at the City Recital Hall Angel Place on Saturday, October 22, at 2pm.
Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald
October 19, 2011
SPEAKING from the stage, Stephen Hough subtitled his program “strange sonatas”, although the familiarity brought by generations of amateur fingers to Beethoven’s Sonata in C sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 2 (the “Moonlight”) would have broken the ice for most.
Hough nevertheless brought an original perspective, turning some of the piano’s most well-known notes into something rich and strange. The opening arpeggios were not exaggeratedly slow but moved forward with a distracted, absent quality. The melody was veiled and underprojected, with the overall mood of thoughtful preoccupation only occasionally interrupted by premonitory emphatic bass notes. The unalloyed good cheer of the central movement and the driven impatience of the finale both followed without a break and almost before one realised it, the rumination had passed.
Hough’s own Sonata for Piano (Broken Branches) was a series of 16 fragmented ideas. Some, such as the culminating section “Non credo”, were sustained and elaborated; others started only to be abandoned immediately. It was indeed a strange work to bind together with the title “sonata” since, in place of the logic of development and closure that was the essence of the sonata in Beethoven’s day, it explored the logic of inconclusiveness and putting thoughts aside.
Hough’s approach to Scriabin’s Sonatas No. 4 and 5, both in F sharp major, was also singular, with none of the drifting rhythm, romantic yearning or freedom of tempo that is usually part of the performance practice of this music. He adopted a clipped, intensely precise approach and bright dry sound with sparing use of the pedal. When the resulting syncopation and cross rhythms in the second movement of the Fourth Sonata and the second idea of the Fifth were combined with Scriabin’s fondness for added sixth chords, the result was strangely reminiscent of jazz.
In Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, Hough’s conception was symphonic, isolating and layering its motives in a way that favoured fragmentation over surging continuity. The outer sections had magnificent intensity and strength, though, for me, the work’s architectural and expressive needs are better served if the slow central melody is allowed to open out more spaciously.
Sonatas were put aside for the encores in favour of three superbly coloured gems by Chopin, Hough and Mompou.