…….make sure it’s Stephen Hough’s new disc of piano music by Debussy (Hyperion).
I read Stephen’s illuminating article about Claude Debussy (New York Times, 2 March 2018) and then listened to his new disc of Debussy’s piano music (Estampes, Images, Children’s Corner, La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse). Here is Stephen writing on Pagodes, the first piece on his new disc:
[Debussy’s] use of its tonal color………is not so much a translation of a foreign text as it is a poem written in a newly learned, fully absorbed language
Stephen could be describing his own playing here (though he is far too modest to do so!). For those more used to hearing him play Liszt with cool yet colourful virtuosity, his Debussy playing is deliciously liquid, lucid, perfumed, sensuous and elegant. The phrasing and pacing is so natural and supple, fermatas and pauses so sensitively judged, touch, articulation and pedalling so clear and carefully nuanced, one has the sense that Stephen has also “fully absorbed” the composer’s language.
Take Pagodes, for example, the piece which opens this disc. Textures and lines emerge, blur and recede with all the ethereal delicacy of watercolour painting (and the suite Estampes is a reminder that Debussy loved art), but there is clarity too, so that every note sounds like a crystalline droplet. Reflets dans l’eau is similarly coloured, glistening and shimmering with subtlety and elegance. There’s nothing fussy or contrived in Stephen’s account of this music, and his assertion in the NYT article that Debussy was a “modern” composer is more than confirmed in his highlighting of the composer’s fondness for piquant or erotic harmonies, surprising melodic fragments (often using the pentatonic scale) and rhythmic quirks.
Children’s Corner proves as much a delight for adults as the young ones: snow dances with feathery delicacy, while The Little Shepherd a study in tender simplicity, tinged with poignancy. Strictly for adults, La plus que lente is wonderfully louche and languorous, with its late-night cocktail bar swagger. L’isle joyeuse closes this fine recording with a sparkling clarity, wit and sunlit joie de vivre
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) / Piano Music / Stephen Hough (piano) / Hyperion CDA68139
Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.
According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The concerto opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First Concerto is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.
Stephen Hough, composer and pianist with The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall, Friday 28th October 2016
An evening of music for piano and voice by pianist and polymath Stephen Hough, performed by The Prince Consort, with Hough himself playing in the second half, promised to be something intriguing and special, especially as the programme included the world premiere of Hough’s song cycle Dappled Things, dedicated to John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall.
In setting poetry to music, Hough is working within a fine English song tradition that includes composers such as Purcell, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Britten, and indeed there were fleeting musical glimpses of these composers within Hough’s works
Stephen Hough’s recent comments about changing the length and format of classical music concerts by ditching the interval and perhaps starting concerts earlier or later in the evening has generated a lively discussion. And rightly so, because those of us who care about classical music should be concerned about keeping this wonderfully and incredibly varied art form alive and kicking. In his article for the Radio Times, Hough expresses his concerns about attracting a younger audience to classical music and notes that there is no one simple solution to attract more people to concerts.
It strikes me that whenever young people are mentioned in the context of classical music, a whole host of commentators immediately respond by saying that “it’s all about education“. They cite the woeful provision for music education in our state primary and secondary schools (true), the fact that music lessons are often the preserve of the better off (also generally true, sadly) and that our children need to be educated to understand and appreciate classical music.
As I’ve mentioned several times before on this site, I was fortunate in that I had a very good musical education as a child, initiated first by my parents, who were keen concert-goers and music lovers, and subsequently through excellent music provision and teachers at both primary and secondary school (both state schools). My enjoyment and interest in classical music was inculcated at a young age and has stayed with me: I have not, as one friend suggested, grown to love classical music as I’ve got older, only that my tastes change as I explore more repertoire. I was very very lucky – privileged, in fact – in my musical education.
The debate about music provision in our state schools is ongoing and no one seems to have the solution. Various musical celebrities such as Nicola Benedetti and James Rhodes have initiated projects to try and right this terrible wrong, and I applaud anyone who cares enough to encourage our children to enjoy classical music, in and out of school. And Stephen Hough’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, just because they might run counter to established ways of doing things in classical music.
But we need to be careful how we frame “educating young people to like/enjoy/appreciate classical music”. As a Twitter colleague of mine said in response to Stephen Hough’s article:
Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive
We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.
It’s very easy – and lazy – to blame the young for all the ills in our society, and debates such as music education are too often, in my experience, loaded with a sense of entitlement or superiority – that the role of educators is to produce people who think and do things our way, rather than exploring ways to engage young people. Maybe one of the first things we need to do is shift the vocabulary from “tell” to “show”, “present” or “point out”……
I don’t have all the answers either. But in my very small way as a private music teacher, and via this blog and my other musical activities, I hope I am making a contribution, albeit a tiny one…..
No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)
In the last week, I’ve been to two concerts which have featured the music of Fryderyk Chopin. The first, at St John’s Smith Square, was the second concert in British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith‘s wonderful and ambitious complete Chopin cycle; the second was a concert by young Polish Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who performed the Opus 25 Études as part of his Wigmore Hall recital on 30th October.
Warren opened his concert with Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op 49, a dark yet majestic work to which he brought requisite scale and grandeur while also highlighting the more intimate elements of the piece. The rest of the programme featured shorter works: a selection of Waltzes and Mazurkas, and in the second half the complete Op 10 Études. What was apparent throughout the concert is that Warren clearly adores this music. This may sound crass, but I believe it is important to love the music you play. In the many interviews I have conducted with musicians, most will express a real love of the repertoire they play and this is often a deciding factor when planning concert programmes or recordings. Warren’s affection for the music was apparent in every note and phrase and this was transmitted very clearly to the audience both through his sensitive shaping of the music, his elegant soundworld and his body language. Despite the size of the venue, he created an atmosphere of intimacy, amply demonstrating his appreciation for the small scale of many of the works played.
In his Études, Chopin elevates the student study into a work of great beauty and virtuosity – while also cleverly retaining the basic premise of the study, that it tests and hones one’s technique. I think the key to playing the Études convincingly is to treat them first and foremost as beautiful pieces of music. Which is what Warren did. It is fascinating to hear the complete set in one sitting, to appreciate their contrasting characteristics and moods, and to marvel at the range of Chopin’s imagination and powers of expression. In Warren’s hands, each was a miniature miracle, sensitively rendered and deftly delivered. His assured technique was the foundation on which he built this artistry and the overall result was exceptionally engaging and intense. I look forward to the next concert in Warren’s Chopin cycle, at the end of November.
Midweek, I heard Stephen Hough at the Barbican in music by Schubert, Franck and Liszt together with the premiere of his new Piano Sonata III, ‘Trinitas’. There is no doubting Hough’s formidable technique coupled with insightful musicality and this concert reflected this. It was a serious affair, only lightened at the end by the encores, but it was a satisfying and thoughtful concert.
Finally on Friday to the Wigmore to hear Jan Lisiecki, billed as a “wunderkind” (a description that always makes me suspicious!). At just 20, Lisiecki has already garnered much praise, in particular for his recording of Chopin’s Op 10 and Op 25 Etudes (he has been signed to Deutsche Grammophon since the age of 15). I have read much about Lisiecki, some very fulsome, some not, and I was curious to hear him live. Unfortunately, his concert was a very patchy affair. The opening Mozart Sonata (K 331) was elegantly articulated, tastefully pedalled and with an understanding of Mozart’s orchestral writing, particularly in the middle movement. The Rondo all Turca, which certain pianists, who shall remain nameless, have a habit of thumping out at high speed, was witty and playful, undoubtedly helped by a more restrained dynamic.
Things started to go wrong, for me at least, with three Concert Studies by Liszt, with further problems in Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, which were largely lost in unclear phrasing and overly loud playing. After the interval came Chopin’s Opus 25 Études. The ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude began well, with delicate figurations and a clear sense of the melodic line, but as soon as the volume began to increase, Lisiecki’s touch became heavy handed and unrefined. In the more energetic Etudes, we were “treated” to an unrestrained display from the “louder faster” school of pianism. The ‘Butterfly Etude’ bounced around the keyboard like an over-sized clumsy moth. Phrasing went awry in the noisy melée, left-hand figures were highlighted but made no sense, and by the time we reached the ‘Winter Wind’ Etude, the brutal hammering of the piano had become almost laughable. In short, this was an unnecessarily flashy and tasteless display of arrogant adolescent virtuosity, which seemed to bear little fidelity to the score, nor an understanding of Chopin’s distinctive soundworld (it is said by those who heard him play that even in the forte and fortissimo range, his sound never rose above mezzo-forte: this is of course in part due to the more softly-spoken instrument he favoured). I have a fundamental and ongoing problem with people playing Chopin’s miniatures (and the Etudes are miniatures – just very difficult ones!) on modern concert grands: just because you can harness an enormous sound from such an instrument, it does not mean you should. A sensitive artist will know how to temper the sound to suit the repertoire – and the acoustic. The Wigmore is a relatively small venue and the audience does not need to be hit over the head with the sound of the piano….. I wondered, on hearing Lisiecki’s playing, whether a teacher may have encouraged him to play that way, or whether it was simply the exuberance of youth. I also felt he is still looking for repertoire which truly suits his personality: when he does, I hope he may produce good things.
Barbican. London, 28th October 2015
As befits this deep thinking musical polymath, the programme for Stephen Hough’s Barbican concert was carefully constructed to reveal every side of his personality – artistic, creative and philosophical. The concert showcased Hough’s new Piano Sonata III, written to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The Tablet, which Hough intelligently linked to his choice of other composers. The spiritual preoccupations of Schubert, Franck and Liszt match Hough’s own, but there were motivic connections between the works in the programme too: for example, the final movement of Hough’s Piano Sonata mirrored the grandeur and hymn-like qualities of Franck’s Fugue. Liszt’s Valses oubliées looked forward to Schoenberg and his cohort in their unexpected harmonies and fragmentary melodies, while Hough’s own work looked back to the 12-tone compositional technique, originally conceived by Schoenberg. There was also virtuosity aplenty too – in his own work and in two of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, which closed the concert.
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