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30 November 2007

A Spiritual Polymath?

Stephen Hough // National // 26.09.07

Ross Edwards Image: Ross Edwards  
© Bridget Elliot

With reviews that praise pianist Stephen Hough for a technique and inventiveness that is ‘unparalleled’ (Carl Vine), as ‘ the greatest British pianist of his generation’ (Sydney Morning Herald), and for the ‘most perfect piano playing conceivable’ (The Guardian), it is tempting to engage in thesaurus searches for superlatives. Instead, I will stick with superb. Hough’s playing is, and was, at the Brisbane performance during his recent Australian tour with Musica Viva, superb. Before attending the concert, however, I was already tempted away from a discussion about the details of Hough’s musical prowess to other equally engaging aspects of his impressive persona.

An eloquent and erudite writer and speaker, Hough is openly gay, a devout Catholic, loudly and influentially proactive about reform in the Catholic Church, and has an impressive published presence where he shares his views about music, religion, sexuality and his inner life (see stephenhough.com and links below). While some may say music must be able to speak for itself, it is difficult to ignore Hough’s ideas on music, especially given his substantial program notes and generous post-concert discussion with the audience during this recent tour.

One can’t help but wonder how Hough’s philosophical and spiritual beliefs inform his music making and repertoire choices, especially given a program that included in the first half the ‘tragic’, ‘sublime’ and ‘liberating’ Beethoven’s last sonata (Op. 111), and ended in a ‘world of mysticism and the supernatural’ with ‘the devil himself’ in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. Of particular interest, however, was the inclusion of an Australian work in his program: Ross Edwards’s Kumari (1980).

Kumari appeared as a link, or ‘suspension of time’, between the opening Variations Sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54 by Mendelssohn, and Beethoven’s Op. 111. Belonging to a group of works in Edwards’s ‘sacred style’, Kumari comes from a Sanskrit word meaning 'pure, untainted by the world'. As Hough’s program notes informed us, the music is a result of Edwards’s immersion in Eastern philosophy, notably Zen Buddhism, and his contemplation of environmental sounds in bushland near the central New South Wales town of Pearl Beach. In making intense use of silence and the hypnotic power of repetition, it aims to create a sense of timelessness.

With Christianity underscoring much of the Western Classical music tradition, how does Hough relate to music informed by an Indian philosophy and Asian spirituality? In a recent article on the importance of joy in piano playing, Hough touches on elements of Buddhism and ‘new age’ philosophy, with echoes of Eckart Tolle’s The Power of Now. As an intellect of the highest order (a Macarthur Fellow), is Hough also a spiritual polymath?

Known in some circles as ‘the mesmerist’, Stephen Hough knows how to hold an audience using both sound and silence. With a piece that has few notes and much silence, Kumari offered a unique opportunity – amidst the turbulence and virtuosity of the rest of the program – for Hough to put this skill to the test. And he largely succeeded. The atmosphere set up by Hough in the Mendelssohn was palpable, yet while his choice to address the audience in between pieces seemed initially refreshing, the decision to pre-warn the audience of the silence in the upcoming Kumari was not only unnecessary, his informal conversational style instead seemed to dull the edge he had so brilliantly created.

While highlighting that the essence of the piece lies in this silence, and the ‘feeling of nothing’, warning people to be patient, it was unfortunate that Hough then apologised for using the score in performance, referring to his trouble in memorising the number of beats of duration and rest in between the sparse notes. It is not surprising that these elements posed some difficulty; Edwards’s ‘sacred’ series can present challenges for both listeners and performers alike. Subtle differences in the timing of Edwards’s meticulously ordered, interlocking rhythmic patterns create the sense of timelessness, questioning the Western notion of time and our preoccupation with goal setting (Elizabeth Green writes about this idea in the liner notes of her CD, Biodiversity:Popular Piano Music Written since 1970, as does Ross Hamilton in his thesis on Ross Edwards).

For the listener, the rewards of accurately representing this interplay are not immediate or obvious, as in the more virtuosic or rhythmically defined works, but attention to such detail seems crucial given that it is what actually drives the essence of the piece. While Hough did manage to create an intense effect, perhaps with memorisation of the work, and a more formal approach, this performance would have been far more powerful.

This was, however, an unfortunate glitch in what was otherwise a superbly executed program. The Beethoven clearly served as the musical core, highlighted by a post-concert ‘apology’ for the less intense second half. Hough was not sure, he confided, that the Opus 111 would be served by a second half of equally great pieces, which influenced then his choice of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64 No. 2, Valse brilliante, Saint-Saëns’s Valse Nonchalante Op. 110, Chabrier’s Feuillet d’album, Debussy’s La plus que lente and Liszts Valse oubliée No. 1, before a finale of the First Mephisto Waltz.

In his post-concert session, Hough spoke about the importance of integrity in his art form and the difficulty in achieving a delicate balance between a composer’s intentions and a personal contribution in the recreation of a work: ‘we have to go so deep into the spirit of Beethoven to bring something personal in to it without realising we are doing it’. It is possible that Hough did find a way into the spirit of Beethoven, maintaining integrity in at least his impression of it. He did not paint colours that he did not see. He attacked the first movement with an exactitude and determination that left little room for sentimentality, an approach Hough continued even in the quiet and contrasting opening Arietta of the second movement. With the return of this theme at the end, the audience was treated to a sound quality and use of space and silence that finally did justice to Hough’s abilities. This did indeed transcend the previous soundscape. Was this an unemotional interpretation? Or did he eschew the stained glass window view preferred by some for a clearer vision of the spiritual light of Beethoven?

The next work, in what could be seen as a programmatic ‘spiritual descent’, was Saint-Saëns’s Valse Nonchalante Op. 110. Disputing the perception that Saint-Saëns’s work is all technique and no emotion, Hough argued (post concert) that the simple qualities of elegance, charm and humour represented the very human ‘half light near the surface’, and deserved a place between the transcendent divine and the fiery depths.

With Hough’s brilliance and idealism, it is not so surprising that he might, at times, need to unleash his shadow, and, in his brilliant rendition of Liszt’s devilish First Mephisto Waltz, it was indeed possible to imagine he penetrated the soul of this composer – a man, who like himself, was very inclined towards a religious vocation. Hough told us he had given passages of this piece ‘hundreds of hours’ in an attempt to ‘make the sound melt’, often feeling physically sick and dizzy after too much practice. His efforts paid off; the devilish virtuosity was matched by a fiery warmth in tone as he opened up the sound.

From this performance, it is clear that Hough is more sympathetic towards music that suggests the presence of at least something in the silence. The notion of ‘nothingness’, as he presented in Edwards’s Kumari, is perhaps not one that he subscribes to. On the other hand, at the very end of the evening Hough reminded us that, at the time of its composition, the Mephisto Waltz was harmonically and conceptually very radical, its impact heightened by the fact that most people at the time – Liszt included – believed in the devil. The unspoken question remained in the air: does Hough?

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Kirsty Guster is a pianist with a passion for the significance and deeper meanings of music. She is currently conducting research into classical pianists' perceptions of the 'intangible' in music for a PhD at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, after obtaining a Master of Music in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music, New York, supported by a Fulbright and Queens Trust Award.


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