Stephen Hough, born in 1961, is truly a polymath. As well as being an internationally acclaimed concert pianist, he is Chair of Piano Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where his is also a fellow. In addition, Stephen is an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in London.
He is a fine composer; the first performance of his cello concerto was premiered in 2007, played by its dedicate, Steven Isserlis. He has also written music for piano and a number of choral works.
Stephen is an accomplished painter and has exhibited in London. He was awarded a CBE in the 2014 New Year’s list for his services to music.
At the BBC Proms in 2012 he gave performances of the complete Tchaikovsky works for piano and orchestra. Stephen has very kindly and generously given us time for an exclusive interview…
Photo: Sim Cannety-Clarke (used with permission)
Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed. It is a great honour for us.
I’m happy to do so, and delighted that Tchaikovsky’s presence on the Internet is about to increase with your new website.
Do you recall the first piece you ever played by Tchaikovsky?
I think I tinkered around with some of The Seasons as a youngster (I remember November), but the first piece I played in public was the Dumka, still for me one of the greatest tragic piano pieces. It’s as full of soul as anything written for the instrument. I didn’t play and never wanted to learn the 1st concerto as a student but one day, when I was teaching it in a master class, its magic hit me and I decided to learn it (about ten years ago).
‘June’ always brought a tear to my eyes. When you were studying music, were you aware of a certain snobbery attached to Tchaikovsky’s music among scholars and academics?
Not really. By the 1980s, many serious musicologists were writing about Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and in Manchester we had David Fanning.
At the time, did you ever dismiss Tchaikovsky’s music as being second rate?
Never. I love music that’s intellectually tight but I also love music that speaks directly to the heart.
When you played the complete works for piano and orchestra at the BBC Proms a couple of years ago, I remember you saying something about speaking to a fellow pianist who said he would much rather play Rachmaninoff than Tchaikovsky. Can you tell us what he meant by this?
Rachmaninov was one of the greatest pianists of all time and he wrote with all of that expertise at his fingertips. But Tchaikovsky was perhaps the first composer to write a piano concerto, which he himself could not play. Musically I love playing both composers’ works but Tchaikovsky does feel like playing with ten thumbs on occasion.
When I first started out as a teacher, I mercilessly destroyed a textbook whose opening line on the composer was, “The popularity of Tchaikovsky’s music is out of all proportion to its artistic merit.” Do you think I overreacted…?
Maybe not! There have been times, particular in the more arid years of the 20th century, when something’s popularity alone was enough to make intellectuals suspicious of it (books, paintings too). It’s an understandable reaction to a cheapening and commercializing of culture but it’s obviously simplistic and at times completely stupid. I hope you recycled the offending pages though 🙂
I put it in a box labelled, ‘Silly Things People Have Written About Tchaikovsky…!’ The second movement of the second concerto is a divine inspiration, is it not? Can you account for the relative unpopularity of that concerto compared with the first? Surely it just can’t be the lack opening ‘big tune?’
I think there are all sorts of reasons why pieces are and are not popular. The 1st concerto was a hard act to follow but I love the 2nd concerto as much. I think the (perceived) problems with the second movement had something to do with it. The piece was heard mainly in the truncated (hacked) Siloti version until the later 20th century. I’ve written about this movement on my Telegraph blog and I offer a solution to the movement’s structural issues on my recording. It seems that Tchaikovsky admitted that there was an issue with this movement, despite the beauty of the material, and I tried to imagine my own solution.
How much research do you do, in general, to make sure you are playing the edition of the music most closely resembling that of the composer’s original score? For example, do you play the original version of that 2nd Piano Concerto’s slow movement?
Every piece has a different history. Some music exists in one, perfect version (Brahms’ 2nd concerto); other pieces went through many versions before reaching a final one (Rachmaninov’s 1st and 4th concertos). With Tchaikovsky’s 2nd there is no excuse to play the Siloti version. Not only did Tchaikovsky specifically disown it, but it turns a serious slow movement with an emotional journey into a sort of intermezzo. The lovely tune is still there but the story has changed.
Would you ever consider playing the fully completed version of the third, as prepared by Taneyev?
I listened to it and did not like the material very much. It wouldn’t have fitted on our CD set … and it isn’t really by Tchaikovsky. Nevertheless, it’s always good that such pieces are recorded by someone.
I’m relieved to hear you say that! Does Tchaikovsky’s music ever make you smile, or even laugh out loud?
Oh yes – not just the mad Troika-type pieces, but the 1st movement of the 2nd, in its sheer virtuosic outrageousness, has a comical element. The same goes for the 1st movement of the Concert Fantasia when the pianist takes over for eight minutes of cadenzas then the orchestra go back to the beginning as if to say, “OK, enough showing off! Let’s start over again”. There are even more places in Tchaikovsky when I find myself gently smiling. The 2nd movement of the 1st concerto is so full of childlike wonder and innocence. It has a kind of magic similar to The Nutcracker.
Is it important for you to know something about the way the composer lived his life before you start seriously studying the music?
I think it usually begins with curiosity, but with certain composers the music is so woven into their lives that it’s really important to know something about what was going on outside the notes.
Did you enjoy playing the complete works for piano and orchestra?
Very much. Partly because so much of it is relatively unknown. It’s quite thrilling to play excellent music by one of the most famous composers, which is unfamiliar.
It was such an honour that Stephen found the time to speak to me. His version of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Works for piano and orchestra can be found here:
Stephen touched on the problem with the slow movement of the second concerto. In this set, he gives us three versions of it; Tchaikovsky’s original, Siloti’s* revision, and his own solution.
The Minnesota orchestra is on fine form under Osmo Vanska, and the 2CD pack comes with an unreserved recommendation from me.
*Aleksandr Siloti: (1863-1945) sometimes spelled as Ziloti or Zhiloti was a pianist and a strong advocate of Tchaikovsky’s music as well as a former pupil. Tchaikovsky would often allow Siloti to proofread and edit his music and they were good friends. But his version of the 2nd concerto’s slow movement robs it of some of its finest moments. In its original version, it is like a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello. And it is beautiful.