Pianist Stephen Hough

England’s polymath of the piano

Greatness does not always declare itself in torrents of Slavic emotion or Germanic intellectualism


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Pianists are tightrope-walkers. Where some other instrumentalists need a partner, the pianist’s calling is to explore the greatest works of the greatest composers with only a score for company. As many of those composers — Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov — were often cosy virtuosi, it is a brave soul who settles in front of a keyboard. You need nimble fingers and a head for heights.

Enough: Scenes from Childhood, Stephen Hough (Faber, £18.99)

The famous ones have always attracted followers, sometimes zealots. Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz and Claudio Arrau had noisy fan clubs in “the golden age” of the mid-20th century, just as Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Daniil Trifonov have today. Bridging the gap were Alfred Brendel, Sviatoslav Richter and, when he was still in short pants, Daniel Barenboim. 

In British musical life, “foreign” has always meant “exotic”. Think what a gilded career the brilliant, tragic John Ogdon might have enjoyed had he been born in Minsk, rather than Mansfield. There are superb pianists in this country today — Steven Osborne, Paul Lewis and Benjamin Grosvenor are in the prime of life — but the ones who catch the public eye tend to be Russians (no change there) or show-offs from Chinese hothouses.

Yet career, as Simon Rattle has said, is not a musical term, and few living musicians have emphasised that truism more robustly than Stephen Hough. Born in Heswall, on the Wirral side of the Mersey, he has ascended the peaks by stealth. Greatness does not always declare itself in torrents of Slavic emotion or Germanic intellectualism.

Hough is much more than an interpreter. He is also a composer, as well as an exhibited painter and published novelist. Were it not a word exhausted by overuse one might call him a polymath, for his experience, as this memoir in 111 fragments reveals, is wide and surprising. Not many pianists spent their early years listening to T. Rex. It’s hard to imagine Andras Schiff bopping along to “Ride A White Swan”.

Born to Colin and Netta, an ill-matched couple, Hough presents an unpatronising portrait of an old-fashioned childhood in Cheshire. His father, born in Australia, raised in India, worked in the steel industry, a son of empire who remained unfulfilled. In his forties he took an Open University course in English literature. A poem that Hough found after his death at the age of 55 reveals an original mind.

The provincial landscape Hough describes will be familiar to those brought up in that baffling period, the recent past. It was a world of stewed tea, scones “dry as a brick”, Heinz spaghetti, Jacob’s Club biscuits and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. The Hough family listened to Mrs Dale’s Diary on their Roberts wireless, watched Bless This House on the box, and enjoyed a glass of Drambuie at Christmas.

First with Miss Riley from Lymm, and then with Heather Slade (a merciless and necessary teacher), Hough discovered his gift. A Daily Mail feature wondered whether the eight-year-old boy was “a new Mozart. Prizes followed, as he entered Chetham’s, the Manchester music school, before enrolling at the Royal Northern College of Music two months short of his sixteenth birthday. 

It wasn’t an easy adolescence. Assaulted outside Manchester Cathedral by bullies seeking pocket money, Hough retreated into a private world. Sustained by the support of a sympathetic tutor, Gordon Green, who played him recordings of Alfred Cortot, he came through. 

Hough outlines the forces that pushed him towards an undogmatic Roman Catholicism

Green had no use for competitions (“picking fruit from the tree before it’s ripened”, according to his pupil), but it was a Royal Philharmonic Society scholarship that carried the 19-year-old Hough to New York and the Julliard School, where he won the Naumburg international competition.

Hough wears his homosexuality lightly. He outlines the forces that pushed him towards an undogmatic Roman Catholicism, a path that began with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. In his early twenties he considered the priesthood, but preferred to honour his faith through the keyboard.

The diffident adolescent who met Jimmy Savile on a television show (and asked for Gary Glitter’s autograph) is now a knight of the realm, though he lives mainly in Manhattan and has taken Australian citizenship to recognise the father he never really knew. 

He still reveres Cortot and, in an illuminating phrase, sees in Brendel’s Schubert “a summer’s day darkening”. Those who have heard Hough’s recent recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes, late Brahms, and Schumann’s Fantasie may think he shares the Frenchman’s grace and the Austrian’s high seriousness. It’s a heady compound.

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