Thursday, December 25, 2008

Versatile Virtuoso

Pianist Stephen Hough Explores the Unusual
by Mark Satola

STEPHEN HOUGH is an artist who possesses, in the best sense, a restless mind. A quick look at the wide range of his repertoire more than suggests an interest in music from all eras and genres: from sonatas and concertos by the early 19th-century composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel to arrangements of popular tunes by Richard Rodgers, with stops in between for readings of works by Xaver Scharwenka, Federico Mompou, Emil von Sauer, and an endless cast of forgotten but charming composers of character and genre pieces -- the amount of music Hough has in his fingers is nothing short of astounding. Yet it seems that his encyclopedic repertoire happened more or less organically.

“I don't have a plan when I choose what music to learn and play,” he says. “I tend to go by instinct. I like to find things that are surprising, but I also like to come to the standard repertoire and find a new freshness in the music.”

New freshness is just what can be expected when Hough joins the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend, with guest conductor Iván Fischer, to take on one of the shaggiest of concert-hall warhorses, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor by Sergei Rachmaninov, the one whose finale was transformed into the schmaltz-laden 1940s jukebox hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

April (and a couple of weeks into May, as well) is shaking out as a sort of Rachmaninov month for Hough. In addition to his performances in Severance Hall, he's playing various combinations of the dour Russian's four concertos in Sarasota, Florida, Santa Ana, California (from where he spoke with this writer by telephone), and Dallas, where he'll play all four concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton over a period of three weeks.

Hough is known for his explorations of unusual corners of the piano solo and concerto repertoire, and his recordings of so much obscure but worthy music. That eclecticism is exemplified in one of his latest releases, Stephen Hough's New Piano Album, a follow-up on Hyperion to two well-received discs on Virgin of small encore and salon pieces of unexpected charm, by such erstwhile household names as Cecile Chaminade, Moritz Moszkowski, Ignacy Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky.

“I like things that have a melodic or harmonic attractiveness that I can latch onto,” he says when asked how he chooses his pianistic souvenirs oubliée, “or something that has a real rhythmic interest. If it has all three, that's great. The key is to be un-self-conscious about it, to find something new and fresh.

“It can veer into self-consciousness, though,” he notes. “I do dislike it when I can sense someone is doing it just for the sake of being different.”

Lest it be thought, however, that Hough is merely a purveyor of lightweight trifles, one must not forget that he is a musical heavyweight (as well as something of a polymath, with composition and writing as adjuncts to his keyboard virtuosity). A native of Manchester who came from a not particularly musical family, Hough came to international attention in 1983 when he won first prize in the Naumburg International Piano Competition. More recently, he was the recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

As a writer, Hough has penned some lively prose, providing detailed but highly entertaining notes for many of his recordings, as well as appreciations of such piano virtuosi as Vlado Perlemuter, Shura Cherkassky and Joseph Villa. Perhaps the most entertaining of his longer essays is his “Berceuse for Bechstein,” a wistful eclogue for a piano that was possessed of great beauty of tone and supple responsiveness, but which was supplanted by the growing hegemony of the brilliant and steely Steinway pianos that began their ascendancy in the second half of the 19th century. The dove-voiced Bechstein lasted a few decades into the 20th century, but the prevalence of Steinways, favored by such clangorous artists as Horowitz, and the replacement of home music making by television, sounded the knell.

“It was so much more appealing than Aunt Maud's arthritic fingers struggling with Chaminade's Automne, or Uncle Harry's repeated attempts to find The Lost Chord," Hough writes with, one imagines, a sad smile. “So the pianos went to the antique shops, Maud and Harry went to the nursing home, and suddenly a chapter of European life was finished.”

As a composer, Hough is known best as an arranger and a writer of works in smaller forms -- his Richard Rodgers arrangements are particularly ingenious -- but there are larger pieces on the horizon. “I'm hoping to release a viola sonata I wrote when I was at Juilliard in 1981 and '82,” he says. “I'd been put off composing by another student, who was very critical of what I'd written. Then [American composer] John Corigliano heard my arrangement of ‘My Favorite Things’ and encouraged me to continue.” As for a career as pianist-composer in the Rachmaninov mold, however, Hough says, “I'm not going to be a composer; I just enjoy the creative process.”

He is, however, co-initiating the creation of some new music. “I have two concertos being written for me, one by George Tsontakis -- the Dallas Symphony commissioned that -- and a concerto by James MacMillan, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra.” He acknowledges his responsibility as a creative artist in helping to bring these new works to life. “It's quite a daunting task to do a piece you haven't seen,” he says. “I can't imagine what it will be like being presented with a piece that has never been heard before.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 14, 2004.

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