Close-up: Stephen Hough

The piano virtuoso combines the sacred, the secular and the slapstick

Michael Church
Sunday 18 January 2009 01:00

When Stephen Hough records a CD, he also writes the liner notes; in the concert hall, he glides between the piano and the conductor's podium. His Catholic and Anglican Masses are regularly sung, and he is the author of a popular book of religious devotions: he has twice been on the verge of ordination as a Catholic priest, and twice been argued out of it by bishops who think that would be a waste. His recording of the complete piano works of Saint-Saëns even won a recent poll in conjunction with Gramophone magazine to decide the best-ever classical music recording. This is why his annual recital at the Royal Festival Hall today will be packed out, as will its reprise at New York's Carnegie Hall next month.

One by one, the big-beast conductors are seeking him out: this month alone, Gustavo Dudamel, Mikhail Pletnev and Vasily Petrenko. Meanwhile, a work he's written for members of the Berlin Phil will create a new genre, as nobody else has had the crazy idea of writing a trio for piano, piccolo and contrabassoon. Inspired by a Rilke poem, this began as a joke: he wanted to see if he could write a piece in full sonata form, lasting less than a minute, for the smallest instrument in the orchestra. Adding one of the biggest was a further joke: "I wanted to exploit the Laurel and Hardy poignancy about the instruments' juxtaposition," he says. "I also liked the challenge in that they don't meet on any pitch. No matter how high you strain your bassoon, you can't reach the lowest note on a piccolo. Hence the idea of alienation and loneliness, which is what the Rilke poem is all about."

And what connection does he make between his sacred and secular activities? "Prayer is a mental discipline that can aid musical concentration. And if I've played a concert I'm not happy with, it helps remind me that it's not the end of the world."

Hough performs today at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0871 663 2500)

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