The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Pianist Stephen Hough discusses the gay Tchaikovsky and praises the “warhorse” Piano Concerto No. 1. Part 1 of 2.

February 22, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

British pianist Stephen Hough (below) is something of a renaissance man.

At 48, he performs around the globe and records on the piano in solo, chamber and concerto music. He composes music. He writes and blogs prolifically. He paints and writes poetry, and has won awards for both. He champions rarely performed composers and works. He takes his own photos for his blog, and, as an openly gay man who converted to Catholicism when he was 19, he writes about theology and social issues.

A graduate of the Juilliard School in New York City, he won the Naumberg Competition in 1983 and in 2001 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He has dozens of recordings currently in print and has won many awards for them, including the complete piano concertos of Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saens.

Hough will be in Madison this weekend (Feb. 26-28) to give three performances of the popular and famous Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor (the same one Van Cliburn was famous for) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under returning Estonian guest conductor Anu Tali (below).

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Also on the program are Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 and the Madison premiere of the work “Dawn” by Estonian composer Heino Eller (1887-1970).

Tickets are $15-$75. For information or reservations, visit or call The Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

Here are links to his own website, his blog, his Wikipedia entry and tickets, program notes and other things for the MSO concerts:

Hough recently agreed to an e-mail interview with the blog “The Well-Tempered Ear.”

Many critics and scholars dismiss the music of Tchaikovsky, and especially denigrate his Piano Concerto No. 1 as little more than an overplayed warhorse. Yet the public loves the work and the so-called “unplayable” concerto helped launch the careers of such virtuosos as Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter among others. What is your own view of the First Concerto? How good is it as music and as a vehicle for the piano? What are its best points and its drawbacks? Why do you play it?

I haven’t the slightest doubt that Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto is a masterpiece from every viewpoint.

It is chockfull of some of the best tunes ever written; it is exciting, tender, whimsical … all you could want. And it “works” as a structure, even if the opening introduction might seem disconnected on paper.

The piano writing is certainly awkward (many pianists say that they find the Rachmaninov Third easier to play than this monster), but it always sounds good.

It’s really the first piece in history fully to combine the virtuoso and symphonic styles in a concerto. Hummel, Chopin and Liszt gave us the former, and Beethoven and Brahms gave us the latter. But here we have both together.

Here is the first of three parts of an interview about Tchaikovsky that Hough has on YouTube:

You have recently recorded all the Tchaikovsky works for piano and orchestra. What makes Tchaikovsky’s music in general so appealing to the public and to you? What is it about his compositional style that reaches people?

Perhaps the quality that is most appealing to the public is a kind of emotional honesty. Tchaikovsky is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, and while we listen to his music we find the courage — if only inside us — to do the same.  There is a sense of internal release involved.

Also, apart from the intensely expressive moments, he takes us into a magical world of fantasy.  The world of the ballet is never far away, and the second movement especially of the First Concerto reminds me of this.  I see a young girl at Christmas … full of wonder, innocence, dreams, games.  This can be spoiled, I feel, by too slow a tempo (it’s Andantino Semplice … flowing and simple).

Which Tchaikovsky piano concerto is your favorite? Which one is the most underappreciated and underperformed?

I like the First and Second equally, but also have a soft spot for the Concert Fantasia. It certainly should be heard more often.

You yourself are an out and self-identified gay man while Tchaikovsky was a closeted and oppressed gay man. Do you see any ties between his sexual identity and his music? Do you feel a special affinity with him and his music, or see a reason to champion his music because of his sexual identity?

It actually appears from his letters — particularly the ones which were censored and suppressed during the Soviet years — that Tchaikovsky was much better adjusted about being gay than we thought. Of course, this doesn’t suit those who would see homosexuality as an automatic recipe for depression and self-hatred.

It was not possible to live a normal, family life with another man in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, but it was widely known that he was gay — particularly amongst the upper classes of Russian society, and it doesn’t seemed to have bothered anyone very much.

The real emotional crisis of his life (and the only time he considered suicide) was when he married in mid-life to try to fit into conventional society.  This catastrophe lasted only a few weeks.

He was certainly a man with a highly volatile emotional life — his father too was often reduced to tears out of sheer emotional stress when both happy and sad — and so I feel a warm sympathy with a composer who could let his inner soul be seen by those of us who play or listen to his music.  But I don’t think his homosexuality makes me connect more intimately to him as such.

Do you have any comments about our neighbors, the Minnesota Symphony and its conductor Osmo Vanska, with whom you have recorded all the Tchaikovsky concertos? When is the Tchaikovsky set slated for release?

The release date is April 1st this year.  We had the most intense time recording these works in four weeks of concerts.  The music is highly charged for a start, and if you add to that that the recording is “live,” you have adrenaline flowing in copious amounts.  But the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo are one of the great musical teams in the world, and it was a fantastic experience to be able to do this project.

Tomorrow: Stephen Hough on blogging, new recordings and attracting young people to classical music

Posted in Classical music

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