Trailing acclaimed recordings, and laden with awards including a $500,000 MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, 54-year-old Stephen Hough is the undisputed top dog among British concert pianists. He is even more sought-after in the US, where he is touring for much of this year. In Britain this month he’s playing Liszt, Schubert, and Franck at the Edinburgh Festival, and Rachmaninov’s towering Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in his twenty-fifth appearance at the London Proms. There are reserves of power in his touch, and an ingrained refinement; his self-composed encores usually dissipate with sly comedy the high seriousness of his art. Elegantly at ease with himself, he’s a performer with whom audiences also feel easy.
He was born and brought up in Liverpool. The £5 piano his parents bought him was all he needed to start honing the talent which led him, via studies at the Royal Northern College of Music, to win the Naumberg International Piano Competition in New York when he was twenty-one. That win signalled the start of a relationship with America which has grown steadily closer ever since.
Most great pianists have a personal style, but Hough’s playing, though magisterial, is not easily characterised. With a Vladimir Horowitz or a Sviatoslav Richter, a Martha Argerich or a Mitsuko Uchida, you know pretty fast who you’re listening to, but although the fastidiously eccentric Shura Cherkassky named Hough as his natural successor, that accolade didn’t cover the case. What sets Hough apart is the exceptional breadth of his repertoire, and the technical finesse and idiomatic authority he brings to every piece he plays. None of today’s heavily-promoted younger players can match this combination, while among the older ones Yevgeny Kissin – now a 45-year-old eminence grise – is the only one leaping to mind who can.
Hough programmes his repertoire on the principle of creative juxtaposition. For a Lincoln Center Great Performers recital at Alice Tully Hall in 2014, he began with Schoenberg’s vestigial Six Little Pieces, then moved on via progressively longer works by Richard Strauss, Wagner, Bruckner, and Brahms, to climax with Liszt’s gigantic B minor sonata. This programme, he explained, was a way of asking how much could be said in how little time.
Meanwhile, by performing and recording the forgotten concertos of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (overshadowed in life by Mozart and Beethoven) and of Xaver Scharwenka (overshadowed by Tchaikovsky), he has induced other pianists to take them up. He has devotedly championed the elusive miniatures of Federico Mompou, which he describes as ‘the music of evaporation’; this music too is now in vogue.
The other way he’s expanding the repertoire is by composition. And in the pieces he has written for solo piano and chamber ensemble, this means an ongoing wrestle with the question overarching all contemporary classical music: how to deal with the tonal-atonal divide? His flip description of his own music is ‘tonal with a twist’, but there’s nothing flip about his analysis of the revolution which Schoenberg ushered in. Traditional tonality works by creating and resolving tensions – ‘placing markers along the path to return home’. The 12-note system ‘ensures that all roads are equal, no note is more important than any other, thus creating a nomadic, circular path where home is the journey itself’. This system became the basis for a cramping post-1945 orthodoxy which still has adherents; Hough’s third piano sonata is an ingenious experiment designed to undermine that system by taking it to its logical conclusion. ‘I want music to move me,’ he says, ‘and I don’t think it can do that without at least a link to tonality. It’s the tug between atonal and tonal which makes music poignant.’ As he points out, the whole of Wagner’s Tristan is built on that principle.
In 2009 The Economist included Hough in a list of ‘twenty living polymaths’, as evidenced by his activities beyond the concert platform. He is a published poet, and paints in a boldly Abstract Expressionist style. In the course of six hundred blogs for the Daily Telegraph he has floated gracefully-turned thoughts on the way we live now; American profile-writers queue up to talk to him, with one American admirer turning his blogs about perfume into a book. Meanwhile he’s just finished his first novel, about a priest who has lost his faith and is being blackmailed. This, says Hough, ‘allowed me to explore things in my own life, but it’s in no way autobiographical’.
That is an important disclaimer, because Hough is a gay Roman Catholic, a seemingly contradictory combination of allegiances about which he has written. He has long felt drawn to the priesthood; the two Masses he has composed, plus his collection of devotional readings, The Bible as Prayer, represent his compromise with that urge. At the Wigmore Hall in October, the baritone Jacques Imbrailo will premiere Dappled Things, Hough’s new song-cycle on poems by Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins. These poets were linked, in Hough’s view, by their presumed sexual orientation, as well as by their aesthetic. Beneath its urbane surface all Hough’s music is, in one way or another, a crusade.
[A version of this appeared in The Economist]