Guest post by Michael Johnson

I have just dusted off ‘The Writer’s Brush’, a book in my chaotic library that reproduces the artwork of 200 well-known novelists and essayists. Looking over their paintings, I can almost hear them letting out sighs of relief as their images took shape on the canvas. Writers often turn to painting for relief from the tyranny of words. It’s a form of therapy — the visual arts provide immediate respite.

Pianists seem to be perfect candidates for this same escape yet finding them and making them talk about it is like pulling teeth. I have identified a handful of pianist-painters and captured some of their thoughts, and my hunt continues, but it might be in vain. Composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote in one of his better polemical pieces, “The music profession is more secret than most … No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated.

Some of my pianist friends will even admit that too much time at the keyboard is ultimately bad for the soul. They are weary of working on muscle memory. It’s the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else that rankles them most. The late Charles Rosen once told me he dealt with this dilemma by propping a book of detective stories on his piano to read as he repeated tricky passages a hundred times. Is that art?

True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to own their work, and written music strictly limits departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers, but of what messages? (Deciphering Chopin’s detailed dynamic markings, they ask themselves, “Why did he insist on such constraints?”) If they stray too far, their teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page.

My advice to pianists is to grab some pots of paint and start splashing. Painting has a “touch of the miraculous” about it, one artist told me recently. Of all the arts, painting will grant you the most license for creative release.

I have been collecting samples of musicians’ artwork for the past year or so, and have been surprised at how committed some of them became, often mounting

their own exhibitions and publishing their visual creations, at least on the internet.

Moreover, I find similar urges among academics, business executives, and even one magician, David Blaine.

Alexander Motyl, a novelist and political science professor at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., finds painting a release from the straightjacket of words – much as musicians fight the constraints of music. “There are no words, no speech, no ‘thinking’ in my painting,” he tells me. “It’s just lines and colors and spaces and visual creations. Stuff happens and, suddenly, you realize, gosh, this is really good.

Somewhere among the painters I find myself, once a struggling pianist, then a working journalist, now a successful portrait painter. I get chills of the “miraculous” when one of my portraits seems to speak to me. My first book of music-makers’ ecstatic faces * has just appeared and my recent one-man show of 70 watercolors in Bordeaux attracted press coverage and a few commissions.

While frustration has driven some leading musicians to the drawing board, reasons of course vary. Among those who turned to the pot-and-brush are Felix Mendelssohn, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, former Juilliard professor David Dubal, the British polymath Stephen Hough, the Argentine virtuoso Ingrid Fliter, Boston’s Russell Sherman, British composer-pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, the Israeli pianist Ilana Vered, The German composer-painter Heiner Goebbels, and the early work of Alfred Brendel. Some Chopin drawings are on display in Warsaw. Ferruccio Busoni, Edward MacDowell, Charles T. Griffes, and Enrique Granados all left visual art among their legacies. Even Mozart doodled funny faces in the margins of his scores.

Stephen Hough tells me in an email exchange that he finds painting more release than relief – a way to explore a different branch of creativity. In playing the piano, he says, “sounds evaporate into the air… but a painting stands as a thing, complete.” As he put it in a separate interview, “I’ve always felt that playing the piano just by itself was not enough.” Painting allows him to find a further outlet. “I feel like I need to move in other directions,” he said.

David Dubal, pianist, broadcaster, pedagogue and accomplished abstract artist, believes that drawing and painting are things we should experience “all the time”. It would “make for a more peaceful world”, he tells me. “Painting and drawing have taught me to see and remember. The hand moving on any surface with brush or pencil is a major activity of the unconscious and conscious mind. One must be absolutely ready to let the hand activate its power. It is an adventure and a gamble.”

He quotes designer William Morris as writing to his painter friend Edward Burne-Jones, “If any man has any poetry in him, he should paint …

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In one of the quirkiest cases of backward cross-fertilisation, John Cage was so inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “white painting” (blank canvasses that Cage called “mirrors of the air”) that later the same year he composed his most famous work, 4’33”, at which a pianist sits quietly at the keyboard but does not touch it.

Left-handed violinist Paul Klee was talented in music and art. He ultimately embraced art, dropping the confines of music altogether and becoming a leading avant-garde painter.

Like Hough, I too find release in painting, sometimes spontaneously. I am often seized by the impulse to sketch a player when I see him or her emotionally high in public. Musicians’ faces and body language provide great material for the artist, inspiring my approach to their portraits — joyful, tragic or just deep concentration.

There is a peculiar pleasure in portraiture. The artist must take an intimate, even intrusive, approach to detail, exploring the eyes, noses and lips – their crinkles, wrinkles and folds — to make the subject come alive. An expressive face can reveal something of the individual’s inner life, and that is what I seek. It takes time to study these faces. The English painters John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud were known for their multiple false starts in oils, scraping away the face and starting over and over. Leonardo da Vinci invested five years, off and on, in his “Mona Lisa”.

Conductors are some of the most emotive performers in public. Yutaka Sado, Kent Nagano, Paul Daniel, and of course Leonard Bernstein lose themselves in the music. I have seen Bernstein leap so joyfully that both feet left the podium at the same time.

Studying faces puts the artist in a spooky symbiosis with his or her subject. I know I have captured the pianist when I can hear the music or see the subject come to life. I stop short of a related spookiness, however, in the very spiritual conductor Seiji Ozawa who also gets that “miraculous” chill. Intensive study of an orchestral score eventually gives him the feeling that it is his music, that he composed it.

Music can get inside you that way.

 

* My collection of portraits of musicians is available at Amazon


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

 

 

Stephen Hough’s Dream album

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A few years ago, I heard Stephen Hough in concert in a programme of “serious” music: the premiere of his ‘Trinity’ Piano Sonata III alongside Cèsar Franck’s mighty Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, plus works by Liszt and Schubert. And the encore? Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, which many will recognise as the theme tune from the BBC’s long running Desert Island Discs programme. Played with as much care and expression as the main programme, it was a delightfully witty and nostalgic close to the evening. This charming miniature appears on Stephen Hough’s latest release ‘Stephen Hough’s Dream Album’ and is given a lilting Chopinesque delicacy by Hough.

Dreaming – Isn’t this what we do when we listen to any kind of music? We suspend the reality of our ordinary lives, we long for spells to be cast, for phantoms to be grasped, to enter a state of ecstasy. (Stephen Hough).

Most of us go to concerts and listen to music to be taken to another place, and this album succeeds in this objective in spades, offering a varied selection of flights of fancy, erotic reveries, melancholy ponderings, and fleeting visions. All the works on the disc are transcriptions, by Hough himself and others (if you, like me, own Hough’s ‘Tributes and Transcriptions’ collection of piano music, you will be delighted to hear his mischievous Radetzky Waltz, the witty Niccolo’s Waltz with its nod to Paganini, Osmanthus Romp and Reverie, and Lullaby played by the composer/performer himself). Here, Hough the concert pianist is cast also as transcriber, interpreter and re-creator, and his own transcriptions are a testament to his musical insight, skill, and whimsy.

What makes this album so charming is Hough’s skilled programming, mixing high art with pieces, which in the hands of certain others, could sound schmaltzy and sentimental. Thus powerful performances of works Liszt and Dohnányi sit happily alongside Hough’s cheery Matilda’s Waltz (a reference to his father’s heritage and scored as a rumba) or amusing transcriptions of dances from Don Quixote. Hough avoids kitsch and brings to every piece his characteristic clarity, musical intelligence, wit, elegant phrasing, tasteful pedalling and an intoxicating kaleidoscope of expressive colours and moods to create an album which delights and surprises at every turn. It’s also deeply personal (two pieces were written for Hough’s partner), ending with “the piece I want to be the final piece I play in concert – the last encore of my last concert which I first heard on my first LP“. Nostalgic and bittersweet, redolent of “at homes” in Edwardian drawing rooms or pre-war cocktail hour, the music evokes a dreamy golden age tinged with poignancy. Hough’s magical soundworld brings an intense intimacy and elegance to every piece. Listen to it as an entire recital album or dip in and out of it: you will be utterly charmed and transported.


Stephen Hough’s Dream Album is available as a CD or download from Hyperion

 

 

 

 

 

A few years ago, I heard Stephen Hough in concert in a programme of “serious” music: the premiere of his ‘Trinity’ Piano Sonata III alongside Franck’s mighty Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, plus works by Liszt and Schubert. And the encore? Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, which many will recognise as the theme music from the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme. Played with as much care and expression as the main programme, it was a delightfully witty and (for those of us of a certain age) a rather nostalgic close to the evening. This charming miniature appears on Stephen Hough’s latest release ‘Stephen Hough’s Dream Album’.

Dreaming – Isn’t this what we do when we listen to any kind of music? We suspend the reality of our ordinary lives, we long for spells to be cast, for phantoms to be grasped, to enter a state of ecstasy. (Stephen Hough).

Most of us go to concerts and listen to music to be taken to another place, and this album succeeds in this objective in spades, offering a varied selection of flights of fancy, erotic reveries, melancholy ponderings, and fleeting visions. All the works on the disc are transcriptions, by Hough himself and others (if you, like me, own Hough’s ‘Tributes and Transcriptions’ collection of piano music, you will be delighted to hear his Radetzky Waltz, Niccolo’s Waltz, Osmanthus Romp and Reverie, and Lullaby played by the composer/performer himself). Here, Hough the concert pianist is cast also as transcriber, interpreter and re-creator, and his own transcriptions are a testament to his musical insight, skill, and whimsy.

In others’ hands, this music could sound schmaltzy and sentimental, but Hough brings to it his characteristic clarity, wit and an intoxicating kaleidoscope of expressive colours and moods to create an album which delights and surprises at each turn. It’s deeply personal, ending with “the piece I want to be the final piece I play in concert – the last encore of my last concert which I first heard on my first LP“. Nostalgic and bittersweet, redolent of “at homes” in Edwardian drawing rooms or pre-war cocktail hour, the music evokes a dreamy golden age tinged with poignancy. Hough’s magical soundworld brings an intense intimacy and elegance to every piece. Listen to it as an entire recital album or dip in and out of it: I guarantee you will be utterly charmed and transported.

Stephen Hough’s Dream Album (Hyperion)

Conductor, recording  producer and Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music Tom Hammond interviews Stephen Hough CBE, who this year is the Festival’s Principal Artist and Featured Living Composer – plus a cycle of his oil paintings will be on display at Hertford Theatre during the duration of the Festival (June 10-16).

Stephen, have you ever done an interview about your paintings that hasn’t referenced music, or the piano?
No I haven’t. In fact I’ve very rarely spoken about my painting, in speech or in print.
Do you remember a day when you put paint onto a canvas for the first time, and thought “Now, I’m a painter”?
I haven’t really thought in those terms. My painting is something very private, partly because it’s the most sensual thing I do artistically. Playing the piano is sounds in the air, writing music or words is marks on a page, but painting is dirty, physical, earthy – and tangible/present. I can look at what I’ve done and show it to someone. It exists. And it can be destroyed … gone for ever.
Can you describe your processes? What sort of paints, canvases, brush techniques, textures, etc.?
I’ve used mainly acrylics in the past but recently I’ve fallen in love with domestic gloss paint. Its liquidity and the vibrancy of the colours. I like to mix other things in with the paint – grit, sand, shredded paper etc. I use a palette knife mostly but also brushes. And fingers, but with surgical gloves!
When a painting is framed and/or hung, do you step back and think ‘finished’, or do you look at a canvas later and think ‘wish I’d done something slightly differently’?
I think with abstract art in particular it’s never finished. That’s one of its fascinations. It’s an improvisation like jazz. When is a riff or a solo finished?
Will you be nervous about people’s reaction to seeing one of your paintings?
The first time was hard – like taking off my clothes in front of strangers! And any time when someone else is in a position of judgement it is an emotional risk …
 
Is the process of painting cathartic, or stressful?
Mainly cathartic, though not relaxing. I get very excited and energized when I paint.
You’ve probably collected more air miles than Phileas Fogg; do you take paintings with you when you’re working in, Asia, Australia, South America…..?
In the past I tried doing small pieces in hotel rooms. But it’s pretty frustrating, and now I’m painting bigger works it’s impossible.
What was the last painting or other purely visual art that you saw that spiritually moved you, and can you explain why?
I loved the recent show at Tate Britain – All Too Human. I’m moved spiritually by the fragility of human life portrayed in art, not by angels and altarpieces. Christ in glory doesn’t move me; Christ as everyman suffering does.
In one hundred years time, would you like to be remembered for your paintings?
I honestly can’t think about that. But the indestructibility of paint perhaps means that when CDs are faded the globs on canvas which have avoided the landfill might still be hanging in there somewhere.

Stephen Hough will be in residence and involved in four events on June 10 and 11 at this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music. Book online, by telephone or in person. Full details here
Image: ‘Dappled Things’ by Stephen Hough

03HOUGH1_SPAN-jumbo-v2What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?

During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.

It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.

In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.

And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.

Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.

Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.

 

 

debussy-piano-music---stephen-hough-hyperion-1515405549…….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

Highly recommended

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) / Piano Music / Stephen Hough (piano) / Hyperion CDA68139

 

Meet the Artist – Stephen Hough

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.

Read the full review here