The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How do concert pianists practice? Stephen Hough offers tips.

October 19, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

So much of playing the piano – or any instrument or indeed any performing art -– boils down to practicing. Specifically, that means how to practice correctly, how to practice productively.

practice room and piano

Recently, I blogged about a wonderfully useful story that appeared on NPR’s terrific classical music blogDeceptive Cadence” about 10 tips for successful practicing. (It also some  interesting reader suggestions and tips that you should read.)

Here is a link to that posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/classical-music-here-are-10-tips-from-npr-on-how-to-improve-your-practicing/

cello practice

From a slightly different perspective, British pianist Stephen Hough (below) more recently blogged about how professional concerts pianists practice. He included some great tips from his own teachers.

Hough_Stephen_color16

Now, Hough is not only a concert pianist but also an exceptional one. In addition, he is an excellent teacher, as I witnessed firsthand several years ago when he gave a master class at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. (At the bottom is a YouTube video of a master class Hough gave on Liszt at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.)

And not for nothing was he the first instrumentalist to receive a MacArthur “genius award.” This multi-talented man – who is openly gay and who converted to Roman Catholicism at 19 — composes music, created a special app for Franz Liszt‘s Sonata in B Minor and writes extremely insightful and intelligent blogs for the Daily Telegraph newspaper and website in the United Kingdom on many different subjects. And he still finds time to be a globe-trotting, award-winning, much-in-demand concert pianist with dozens of recordings to his credit.

hough

So here is a recent entry that of Hough’s talking about the DO’s and DON’Ts of how professional concert pianists – with limited time for practicing – go about the tricky but absolutely vital business of practicing.

It is an article that Hough wrote for the November/December issue of International Piano magazine. And it adds to the many other blog posts he has done about learning how to play the piano. (You can use a search engine o his site to check out other ones.)

The Ear hopes you find it as helpful and engaging as he did:

Here is a link:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100070997/the-practice-of-practising/

Do you have any practicing suggestions?

The Ear want to hear.


Classical music: Award-winning pianist Stephen Hough is an accomplished polymath or Renaissance man who also blogs and paints. His personal history is fascinating. So are the sharp stylistic differences he demonstrates in different art forms.

August 4, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Longtime readers of this blog know my admiration for the British pianist Stephen Hough (below).

Hough_Stephen_color16

Hough, who won the prestigious Naumberg Competition while at the Juilliard School, plays the piano superbly well and has a large shelf full of international awards for his recordings on the Hyperion label. He especially likes to explore less well-known repertoire.

He is a terrific teacher and coach, as I have witnessed firsthand in a masterful master class (below) in Madison.

But in addition to his career as a concert pianist, the supremely talented Hough — who is an astonishingly accomplished polymath or Renaissance man — also writes a regular and highly informative and entertaining blog for the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom. He touches on everything from, of course, the piano (especially historic pianists and performances) to theology (an openly gay man he converted to Roman Catholicism at 19) and fashion (especially his fondness for hats). One of his best entries for me was about the role of hitting wrong notes:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/classical-music-how-do-you-cope-with-wrong-notes-you-hit-or-hear-pianist-stephen-hough-has-a-healthy-and-helpful-point-of-view/

Here is a link to his website:

http://stephenhough.com/index.php

Here is a link to his marvelous blog:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/author/stephenhough/

What most people – and I include myself – – most admire about Hough’s playing is its clarity, its sense of measure and proportion.

As he himself says, he is not much given to “hairy-chested” interpretations of big, intense Russian music like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. His recent award-winning recording of the complete Chopin waltzes shows his ability to find new and convincing things to say about familiar works and he says them clearly as well as gracefully and elegantly. (Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Stephen Hough Chopin waltzes CD cover

He discusses his approach in a fine interview and profile that appeared in The New York Times just before a Carnegie Hall recital this past spring in which is also played his latest big work, his own Sonata “Notturno luminoso.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/arts/music/stephen-hough-brings-his-eclectic-style-to-carnegie-hall.html?pagewanted=all

And here is a review in the Times of that recital:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/arts/music/stephen-hough-at-carnegie-hall.html?_r=0

hough

But the real surprise for me came when I about and saw his style of painting. He paints in oils, and he exhibits and sells his art.

But unlike his music-making, his painting of this MacArthur “genius award” winner seems almost violently Abstract Expressionist.

Here are a couple of examples:

Stephen Hough painting Impromptu

Stephen Hough painting Bunte Blatter IIBut of course ultimately it is piano playing that keeps Hough – who resides in the UK, New York and Australia – in the public eye. Listen to this Chopin waltz and you can understand why.


Classical music: Pianist Stephen Hough talks about his outstanding new recording and why French music sounds lusciously French.

October 27, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Stephen Hough (below) is a much acclaimed, prize-winning pianist, the first instrumentalist ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Hough has just released another recording. He is, to be sure, a prolific recording artist with so many titles and so few duds.

As often happens with Hough, it is in the sampler format. This one is called “The French Album.” (He has also done Spanish, English and  Mozart albums. Hmmm… what I wonder what he would include on The German Album?)

The mostly terrific new CD (below) features works by many composers you would expect as well as some you might not, including Ravel, Debussy and Faure to say nothing of Chaminade, Delibes and Chabrier. It also includes some non-French music that was arranged by the famous 20th-century French pianist Alfred Cortot, and some music by Massenet that Hough himself arranged. (Hough is a composer who recently premiered his own Piano Sonata No. 2.)

The Ear has listened to the CD and finds it typical of Hough’s excellence in the way he combines through absolutely first-rate technique and deep musical sensitivity, always bringing together clarity and lyricism.

There are only a couple of places where I think he went wrong. The biggest is wasting 8 minutes on the transcription by Cortot (below) of J.S. Bach’s famously dramatic and popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor for the piano.

Just the one Cortot transcription of the soulful but short slow movement from Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor would have done the job. And hearing the famous “Clair de lune” of Debussy by itself is a bit pandering and incomplete, though it will surely help the CD sell. Better that Hough should have played a Debussy prelude like “Sounds and Perfumes.”

Similarly, I really wonder whether the flashy Liszt concert paraphrase of melodies from the opera “La Juive” by Fromenthal Halevy qualifies as French music. I don’t think so, except perhaps in some distant etymological sense. Again, I would rather hear more of Hough’s exquisite Faure or Ravel or Debussy, or even maybe early French keyboard music like Couperin or Rameau, which would surely benefit for his clarity.

I would much rather have heard something else truly French and truly unknown. That is why I especially like his recording of relatively unknown works by Alkan (at bottom) and Poulenc.

Last weekend, Hough was interviewed by host Guy Raz (below) on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and he spoke eloquently and humorously about the new recording for Hyperion. He even touched descriptively on what makes French music sound French to us – especially if, like The Ear, you are a devout Francophile.

That is, why is French music – like French Impressionist painting – always seems to us Americans, Brits and Germans so sexy or at least sensual, with just the right soupcon of illicitness and sin.

Well, what do expect from the same culture that brought us haute couture and haute cuisine as well as Proust and Baudelaire, French kissing and French cut underwear? It is all part of what The Ear calls “The Souffle Aesthetic” that relies on “more air than egg.” And stylistically it never fails to seduce and charm.

As retro-spy novelist and fellow Fracophile Alan Furst (below) has written, The French like three things: reason, beauty and little things done well.

Voila!!!!

It is an interview that you might want to hear, especially if you live in a city like Madison where Hough has played and conducted master classes several times. He is a supremely articulate thinker as well as a supremely gifted pianist.

Here is a link to that NPR interview with Raz:

http://www.npr.org/2012/10/21/163252853/stephen-houghs-french-album-a-musical-dessert-trolley

And here is a link to Hough’s personal blog of the British newspaper The Telegraph. Hough is a curious and exploratory being, an openly gay man who converted to Catholicism at 19 and who writes about many things besides music and piano playing, although he also is offering tips about playing the piano in an installment form.

It is all enough to make Hough perhaps the most interesting pianist on the planet since he also rises way above just wiggling his fingers well:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/author/stephenhough/

Enjoy!

And be sure to leave a COMMENT about what you like and don’t like about Stephen Hough; about his recordings including his new one; and about his blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


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