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

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

Read my full review here

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(picture: The Economist)

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…..

Further reading

No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)

Stephen Hough: no more loo breaks? – Article by Andrew Eales/Piano Dao

Nicola Benedetti: Every young person in Britain should be made to study classical music

 

 

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 Mailley-Smith

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.

Read my full review here

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.

Jan Lisiecki (photo: Mathias Bothor)

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.

Read my full review here 
(Photo credit: Sim Canetty Clarke)

by James Holden

Stephen Hough’s recording of Liszt, ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans le solitude’, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/III on the CD Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu  released on Virgin as 724356112926.

There are moments when the piano ceases to sound like a box full of hammers being thrown against metal. It ceases to be a blacksmith’s instrument, all anvil-struck notes, all blows and impact.

Stephen Hough’s performance of Liszt’s ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’ is one such moment.

I first heard this recording when I was still relatively unversed in the nineteenth-century piano repertoire. I had listened to some Chopin and knew a few of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.I wasn’t familiar with anything by Schumann and knew no Thalberg, Alkan or work by any of the other virtuosos.What little I knew of Liszt I had learnt from reading, and not least from those references to him in Proust.

Like so many other happy cultural discoveries, I first borrowed the CD on which this recording is to be found from the local library (Barnsley). It was there on the racks with the other discs, compilations, popular classics, opera box sets and the like. Stephen Hough, Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu.I turned it over, looked at the track listing on the back, weighed it up and then walked it to the desk. I thought, ‘Why not?’

The love I immediately felt for the ‘Bénédiction’ made me a confirmed musical Romantic.There is something in its combination of simple melody and complex accompaniment that, from the very first notes, seems to care for me, the listener, and seeks to protect me. This is not just music to love but music by which one is loved. I’ve only ever had this same feeling with a few other recordings, including Björk’s song ‘Undo’ from her 2001 album Vespertine.

Under Hough’s hands, Liszt’s notes spread outwards; they diffuse themselves. There is nothing struck here, or so it seems, nothing metallic. All is radiated.

Hough’s gestures respect both the work’s grandeur and the composer’s profound religiosity whilst never straining for emotion or effect. Consider, for example,the moment when the right hand part is extended by a series of arpeggios (the passage marked ‘poco a poco animato il Tempo’ on the score). The upper notes seem to open out of the main melodic material, as though the chord was always already there, in the tune, and has only now risen to an audible volume.What great touch on the keyboard; what pedal control!

No other performance of the ‘Bénédiction’ has affected me in quite the same manner. Leslie Howard’s recording of it for Hyperion is undoubtedly brilliant but its brilliance is that of the bright midday sun reflected off of polished stone surfaces. It’s a little too insistent, too sharp edged, a performance whose volume and clarity causes the overall effect to be lost. The more Howard makes things visible the harder it is to see the work. I own a recording of Claudio Arrau playing this piece that is, by contrast, seemingly formed of those reflective stone surfaces themselves. It gives the impression of blocks of notes being moved into place. The Andante is especially hard, too clearly delineated, too marked in outline.

For all its wavering poetry, Hough’s performance is unwaveringly certain of the work’s coherence. As the piece stretches out to over seventeen minutes this is very welcome – essential, even. To take some examples: we can sense the connection between the partial melody in bars 44-49 and that in the later ‘quasi Preludio’ passage; and at the end of that same Preludio, just before the return of the main melodic material, Hough calls our attention to the communication between the hands, the passing backwards and forwards of the notes. In the Coda we can feel everything combine in one final, calm cadence.

Hough’s recording has affected my own playing. I’m only an enthusiastic amateur at best and doubt that I’ll ever be able to play the ‘Bénédiction’ properly and in full (I can play the comparatively simple Andante and quasi Preludio sections). However, my joy at listening to this recording did lead me to learn Liszt’s ‘Schlummerlied’, another work in F♯ major, one with a similar, albeit much simpler, repeating C♯-D♯ right hand figure. When I worked at this piece it was like working at a ‘Bénédiction’ in miniature, only one within my ability range.

As the piece ends, as the last chord dies away I have felt myself suspended, unwilling to speak or move, to intrude into the space created by Liszt and Hough.

Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter

© James Holden 2014