Pianist Stephen Hough: ‘I play as if it were written by someone else’

Stephen Hough. Picture: Sam Canetty-Clarke

Stephen Hough. Picture: Sam Canetty-Clarke - Credit: Archant

Britain’s finest pianist, Stephen Hough, gives an intimate concert on his doorstep including a piece he composed himself as part of the Hampstead Arts Festival

It’s hard to think of Stephen Hough as actually living anywhere. Mercurial, smart, elusive, he’s the classic case of a musician on the move: the friend you contact in a lame way to ask what he’s doing at the weekend, only to receive an email that begins ‘I’m in Los Angeles’. Or Kuala Lumpur. Or Geneva.

But he does in fact live in St John’s Wood, periodically. And as a locally based star, he’s been on the Most Wanted list of the Hampstead Arts Festival for as long as it’s been running - without success until this year when he effectively tops the bill as its biggest catch.

Perhaps the finest, certainly the most intelligent and technically impressive British pianist on the international circuit, Hough has ranked among the world elite ever since he won the Naumberg Competition in America in 1983. He collects Gramophone Awards like the rest of us collect shopping. He plays the grandest venues. So an intimate recital on his doorstep isn’t something he does often.

But there are incentives. As he told me recently, “at least you know where to eat after the concert: always a musician’s concern. And you can expect friends and neighbours - not always the same thing - in the audience”.

The concert he’ll be giving Hampstead features Schubert, Liszt and Cesar Frank. But critically, it also has his own 3rd Piano Sonata: a demanding, intellectually rigorous work that has a lot to say about Hough’s wider interests.

Listed by the magazine Intelligent Life as one of twenty noted polymaths of modern times, he is a serious composer. He writes poetry that wins prizes. He paints, in an anguished but interesting way. And he writes articles and books on spiritual issues, being a devoutly Roman Catholic convert.

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Although abstact in conception, his Sonata bears the title “Trinitas”: not accidentally, in that it bears out what he acknowledges as the “special vulnerability in playing one’s own music – a self-revealing and unveiling beyond interpretation or taste”

But as he also says, “there’s a distance too, with this piece. The Sonata is over a year old now, and I’d probably write it differently if I were doing it again. We all change - composers and interpreters – and it’s important for me to play this piece as if it’s written by someone else. I don’t want it to feel like improvisation. It’s fixed, it’s published; and now I have to observe what the composer wrote in the score”.

However Hough approaches his own music in this Hampstead concert, he’ll be doing it with what anyone who knows him will recognise as characteristic generosity – surrendering his fee to a charity for music in prisons.

Asked why, he talks about dreading imprisonment – not because he’s personally expecting to be sent down at the next assize (he leads a relatively blameless life), but because he’s somebody who cherishes the idea of freedom and feels for those who lose it.

“For me”, he says, “music is a ticket to a deep, inner freedom: the liberty to be lifted beyond the everyday into a world of imagination. And music is non-judgemental: it survives in the most squalid places, curiously intact and pure. So it’s important that it should exist in prison, offering the possibility of hope and encouragement. And I want to support that.”

Stephen Hough, unlocking doors at Hampstead Arts Festival, Mon November 7, 7.30pm, St Johns Downshire Hill NW3. hampsteadartsfestival.com