Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, by Stephen Hough. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2020.
BOOK REVIEW – Stephen Hough has not played much Sibelius (who is rarely associated with piano music), but as a listener and writer, the English pianist is an amazing interpreter of the Finnish composer. In his book of essays, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, Hough recalls hearing the Sibelius Fourth and Fifth Symphonies played back to back by the London Philharmonic under Osmo Vänskä.
“I was conscious of a pricking of tears in my eyes as the Fifth Symphony finished,” Hough writes. “I tried to work out what it was that made this piece so overwhelming and it struck me that it was like a symphony under ice, as if a great Romantic work were being heard from a point of inaccessibility: tunes deflected and diverted by the frozen surface, fissures forcing the counterpoint to veer off at strange tangents, climaxes narrowly averted, melodies ungraspable.”
Sibelius symphonies do tend to inspire vivid music criticism, but Hough’s response to the Fifth is as evocative and perceptive as any I’ve read. As a distinguished concert pianist, who has twice won Gramophone magazine’s award for Record of the Year (for concertos of Sauer and Scharwenka in 1996, and of Saint-Saëns concertos in 2003), he brings great musical intelligence to his writing. But he also has other talents as a composer of more than 40 published pieces and a painter whose work has been exhibited in London. In 2001, he was the first classical musician to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
As a soloist, Hough often brings a bit of flair to the concert hall. In one of my favorite musical moments along these lines, he once gave a brilliant performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Florida Orchestra while sporting a pair of emerald green shoes. That was one time I paid close attention to a pianist’s pedaling. He brings a similar lighthearted touch to much of his writing.
At 443 pages with more than 200 essays, Rough Ideas is mainly made up of bite-sized, aphoristic commentary, similar to the contents of the popular blog the pianist wrote for The Telegraph for seven years. Like a concert program of virtuosic, offhand bonbons, his book is ideal for dipping into rather than extended immersion. This is not to say that Hough doesn’t deal with weightier matters, from Beethoven’s cadenzas to stage fright to the aging of classical music audiences to the excellent acoustics of Wigmore Hall to an essay titled “Gay pianists: can you tell?”
In pondering that question, Hough, who is gay, cites the examples of great gay pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, and Shura Cherkassky: “It’s certainly not the old stereotype of effeminacy – Richter is one of the most physically powerful and ‘unglamorous’ pianists of all time. But perhaps there is an intensity, a verging towards the edge, a barely checked hysteria (Horowitz’s on his sleeve, Richter’s under ironclad armour) that can sometimes be a clue.”
Two of the book’s longest pieces are superb notes on a pair of albums Hough recorded in the 1990s, one of music by the neglected English late Romantic composer York Bowen, the other of works by Federico Mompou – “the music of evaporation,” as the author puts it so perfectly in describing the Catalan-Spaniard’s shimmering style. There’s another long essay on practice tips for pianists, with such useful pointers as not necessarily starting at the beginning of a piece in learning to play it, the value of practicing with eyes closed, and cautioning against using up all your energy rehearsing for a performance.
Hough’s best advice to talented young pianists? Learn concertos. “Almost every career starts and is established with concerto appearances,” he writes, mentioning the experience of Lang Lang, whose stardom was born in 1999 when he was the last-minute replacement for an ailing André Watts at a Ravinia Festival gala and gave a sensational performance of the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.
Not included as a practice tip is Hough’s one-time devotion to pipe smoking (“By the time I stopped smoking I had between 30 and 40 pipes”), fondly recollected in his ode to tobacco. “I used to smoke constantly while practicing and I learned a lot of my concerto repertoire while clenching a pipe between my teeth. Rachmaninoff Third’s racier passages would shower hot ashes onto my trousers if not carefully judged.”
Hough’s warmth and wit are on display in appreciations of musicians whose playing he has admired, such as Alfred Cortot – “a towering pianist, who, through a careless (in the sense of carefree) musical vision, seemed simply not to worry that the notes on the keyboard failed occasionally to match those on the printed page. No matter. Like a bruised eagle he still soared higher than most.”
Religion is a theme of Rough Ideas, with more than 20 essays on the subject, including one on Elgar’s Catholicism that is an especially fine contribution to an understanding of the composer’s music. Hough, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager, considered going into the priesthood, and he remains a weekly churchgoer. He has composed two Masses, and his first book, The Bible as Prayer, published in 2007, is a collection of daily scriptural readings and meditations. His 2018 novel, The Final Retreat, is about a middle-aged priest who is blackmailed by a male prostitute.
Hough’s essays about the challenges of being a gay Catholic cover issues such as same-sex marriage in more or less conventional fashion, but his autobiographical essay titled “Is he musical?” (a euphemism for homosexuality when Hough was growing up in the 1960s in the north of England) is a minor masterpiece of coming-out literature combined with erudite theology.
Hough is an indefatigable trouper (sadly, according to his website, this year he’s had 32 orchestral and recital engagements canceled, half of them in the United States, because of the coronavirus pandemic), and Rough Ideas tells some good stories from the road. There’s a merry account of the time he played the Grieg Concerto twice on the same day with different orchestras in Amsterdam, as well as a melancholy musing on the loneliness of the touring performer. He is also a prolific recording artist, with more than 60 albums to his credit, and six essays grouped under the title “Red light district” give expert, droll insight into the process of making records.
Hough has released two recordings in 2020 on the Hyperion label: Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces, four sets of miniatures; and Beethoven: The Piano Concertos, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu conducting. They are the ideal complement to reading Rough Ideas.
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.