Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I think the piano was its own inspiration. We had no classical music in my home at all but an aunt had a piano and it was love at first vamp. I picked out tunes on its yellow keys and wanted to take lessons. it was a short step (over a long time) for that to become my career.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Definitely my main piano teacher Gordon Green. Also Derrick Wyndham (both taught at the RNCM) then later Robert Mann (former 1st violinist of the Juilliard Quartet) with whom I played and recorded all the Beethoven sonatas in the 1980s. I was 23 and had everything to learn; he was a great partner and, indirectly, a teacher. I would also cite Alfred Cortot and many other pianists from the first decades of the 20th century whose playing I got to know well through recordings. They were always and remain my favourites.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Just doing it – day after day. Specifically the extreme contrast between being as tough as a old boot offstage (travel, hotels, paperwork etc. etc.) and as sensitive as a bejewelled ballet shoe when at the piano. It requires a unique kind of schizophrenia!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Ah tough to say! The Hummel concerto record was the first one where I felt good in the studio, despite very little time. We had less than six hours for each concerto, to rehearse from scratch (correcting parts along the way) and record. it was seat of the pants but I still remember the exhilaration and excitement of playing those pieces and making the first complete recording of works which were absolutely central to the repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann etc. Later Mompou was a joy to record and more recently my own 2nd piano sonata (on the CD ‘In the Night’). Strange to record your own music!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I really can’t say. But I do feel able to slip into different roles. I feel as involved and connected playing Mozart and Beethoven as I do playing Chopin and Liszt as I do playing Schoenberg and Webern.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Some of it ties in with recording plans, sometimes there are anniversaries, or specific requests. With concertos it depends a lot on the programming being done by the conductor and management of the orchestras.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Not really. Many famous halls are famous because they’re great – main stage of Carnegie New York or Concertgebouw Amsterdam or Musikverein Vienna. The Wigmore of course is special. I also love Severance Hall in Cleveland … too many to name though.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
Impossible to say!
Who are your favourite musicians?
Mainly those who died before I was born – Cortot, Rachmaninov, Friedman, Kreisler etc. I’ve worked a lot with Steven Isserlis and he is one of my favourites, for personal as well as musical reasons.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably my debut at the Hollywood Bowl when I raced over from Cheshire to replace Pogorelich at the last minute. it was my first taste of the fast-lane, crazy side of having a career. Paganini Rhapsody with Sir Charles Groves.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Study the score intensely then play as if you’re improvising.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think ‘success’ is one of the hardest words for a musician to define. There is no way to measure it externally; it passes and fades like life itself; it depends entirely on the subjective impressions of others; chasing it almost guarantees its lack. All I can say is that if music still thrills, charms, touches, moves, inspires us every day (and through us, other people too) then we are successful musicians.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Same place but deeper.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Surprised by happiness when not looking for it – and sharing it with someone else.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
Many things. To choose one would be to squeeze it dry of magic.
What is your present state of mind?
Content yet tired and a little anxious – but grateful for life and health and food and friends.
Named by ‘The Economist’ as one of 20 Living Polymaths, British pianist Stephen Hough is a rare renaissance man of our time. Over the course of a long and distinguished career as one of the world’s leading concert pianists, he has also excelled as a writer and composer. Mr. Hough combines an exceptional facility and tonal palette with a uniquely inquisitive musical personality, and his musical achievements have resulted in many awards and accolades for his concerts and a discography of more than fifty recordings.
Stephen Hough was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List.
Stephen Hough’s full biography