Pianist Stephen Hough on “digging deep” during the pandemic

Pianist Stephen Hough picture by Sim Canetty-Clarke

Pianist Stephen Hough picture by Sim Canetty-Clarke - Credit: Archant

Pandemic lockdown doesn’t signal boredom for the distinguished musician who practices in his St John’s Wood studio for eight hours a day

Pianist Stephen Hough releases a CD of the complete works of Beethoven Picture S Perry

Pianist Stephen Hough releases a CD of the complete works of Beethoven Picture S Perry - Credit: Archant

Most great pianists have a recognisable style, but Stephen Hough’s playing is distinguished by the quality he pursues in his daily eight-hour stint in his practice room in St John’s Wood: authority.

He recently wrote of his routine: “I leave my house in the morning and walk to my studio. There are few people on the street and my body is adjusting from breakfast as my mind is adjusting from the morning emails. I speak to no one, and at my studio I turn on the lights and make myself an espresso. Then to the piano. The day stretches ahead. I see no one. It’s just me and Beethoven, hour after hour. Around 6.30pm I stop, wash the coffee cup, turn off the lights, leave and go home.”

In some ways the Covid-19 crisis has been a gift to him.

“I am finding it a refreshing, invigorating time for working,” he says. “I’m just trying not to do the calculations as to how long my savings will hold out. I suppose it all depends on how long the crisis lasts. I do fear that the longer everything is closed down, the harder it will be to return to normal.”

But he doesn’t miss the stresses of the touring life he normally pursues: “Every morning as I wake up, there has usually been a sense of anxiety: am I ready for the next concert? When do I have to get to the airport? Is that piece memorised? The dress rehearsal next week – can I play first so that I can get back to the hotel and rest before the concert?”

Covid-19 is of course also a terrible thing on many levels, he says.

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“There won’t be one person unaffected by it, some in the most devastating way, with lives and livelihoods hanging by a thread.”

When the lock-down was imposed he spent a morning going through his diary “erasing concert after concert, rehearsal after rehearsal, flight after flight. Weeks of activity gone.”

As he points out, for self-employed musicians work is precarious at the best of times. “Every concert is in some way an audition, as hundreds of alternates, waiting in the wings, are ready to step into your patent leather shoes. But the wings are now closed, and it’s impossible at this point to say where this will end. I’m trying to live in the present moment, taking each day as it comes, because now is all we have. The question is whether we embrace that fact, or fight against it.”

His remedy is ever more work, and as a recording artist he has long been furiously productive. Last autumn he released a superb CD of Brahms’s late piano works, and next month his recordings of Beethoven’s complete concertos will be released by Hyperion.

But those were done before the Covid axe fell: now he is happily immersed in his other spheres of creativity, which are remarkably various.

In 2009 The Economist included him in its list of ‘twenty living polymaths’. He teaches pianists at the Juilliard School in New York, and he’s produced a best-selling iPad app exposing the mechanics of Liszt’s great B minor sonata. He is also a published poet, and paints in a bold Abstract Expressionist style. And although he insists that his paintings are strictly for himself, he has exhibited and sold them.

Until the Daily Telegraph abolished its blogs, he was one of its most prolific and popular bloggers. In the course of six hundred posts he floated gracefully-turned thoughts on many aspects of the way we live now – a series on perfume was turned into a book – as well as on culture from ballet and jazz to Bowie and the Beatles. Nobody has nailed the magic of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata as deftly as Hough has, in one allusive blogged paragraph.

Meanwhile he’s written a novel on the Graham Greene-ish theme of a priest who has lost his faith and is being blackmailed. This, says Hough, “was fun to write, and 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.

At present these extracurricular activities are on hold, to allow composition to take centre stage. He has in the past composed masses, and plenty of chamber music whose modernism is shot through with a refined Romantic sensibility.

But now he’s got three commissions on his desk, all due next year: a string quartet for the Takacs Quartet, a song cycle for the Wigmore Hall ‘and the 92nd Street Y’, and the test piece for the Van Cliburn competition.

“This hiatus is a wonderful opportunity to dig deep.”

Stephen Hough’s Beethoven Complete Recordings is released in May by Hyperion.