Stephen Hough plays Debussy, Beethoven and Schumann at Henrietta Barnett School

PUBLISHED: 11:00 26 August 2017

Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Sam Canetty-Clarkes

Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Sam Canetty-Clarkes


The St John’s Wood pianist plays Debussy, Beethoven, Schumann at Henrietta Barnett School in September

Stephen Hough is a pianist of such international distinction that he isn’t often to be found at home in St Johns Wood, still less performing on his doorstep.

But a year ago he did appear locally, in the Hampstead Arts Festival. And it was there that the secretary of Mill Hill Music Club seized the opportunity to ask if he’d make time for another local appearance, at one of the Club’s future dates in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

So, next month, that’s where he’ll be – at Henrietta Barnett School on Sunday 10, playing a concert squeezed into his schedule between stepping off a plane from Norway and then flying on to Italy before a tour of India and Singapore. He gets around.

That said, the trip to India will be new territory for Hough: the western classical performance circuit there is limited and not much of a draw for world stars. But he’s booked to play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with a symphony orchestra in Mumbai. And he tells me he agreed to go “because I’ve always wanted to. My grandfather once lived in Bombay as it then was, working for the steel industry; and my father was conceived there, before the family moved on to Australia. So it’s in my background.”

As things stand no Indian music has crept into Hough’s repertoire. But one piece featuring in the recital programme that he tours this season - and effectively launches at Henrietta Barnett School - does have an Indian connection: a Prelude by Debussy that Hough tells me was inspired by the enthronement of King George V as Emperor of India.

“It’s not directly a response to the event,” he says, “more that Debussy’s mind was fired by the exoticism the enthronement conjured up: the idea of a sultry evening with fantastic spectacle.”

How this will register in the not notably exotic circumstances of the Henrietta Barnett School hall is an interesting question. But the MHMC audience will have the chance to tell him before Hough then takes the programme on a world tour that embraces major venues like Carnegie Hall, New York.

Choosing a touring programme for the season is a fascinating process “often linked to a recording,” Hough explains. “But also a combination of things you’ve planned for ages, things that fit together, maybe with a theme, and things that simply strike you at the time as right. It’s like going to a farmer’s market and thinking the tomatoes look particularly fresh, I’ll have some.

“Last season I devised a programme that fitted around my own third Sonata. This season it’s about contrast: the French aesthetic of Debussy as against the German of Schumann and Beethoven, but with a challenge to received ideas about the two.

“A standard perception of French piano music is that it’s spontaneous and perfumed, while German music is more planned and structured. But the programme I’ve chosen here turns that on its head.

“I’ve got pieces by Debussy – principally the two books of Images – that are fastidiously detailed and jewel-like, alongside German works that are emotionally crazy and irrational. Beethoven’s Appassionata is a sonata that explodes with passion and anger. And the Schumann Fantasie Op 17 – well Schumann is always walking off into the forest, full of wild imagining.”

The clash of styles in Hough’s new programme is a feature of his attitude to work. Some pianists focus on a narrow band of repertoire and live within it rather than exploring different worlds, but Hough is more eclectic.

As he says, “I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. It’s like being an actor: do you just play villains all the time? I think that would be dull. Laurence Olivier did everything from Shakespeare to contemporary comedy and was at home in all of it. I hope to be the same.”

Stephen Hough plays Debussy, Beethoven, Schumann at Henrietta Barnett School NW11, Sun September 10, 7.30pm. Details:

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