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STEPHEN HOUGH

Hough had three main teachers during his formative years. Heather Slade-Lipkin was his first teacher, then at Chetham’s School he studied with Gordon Green, with whom he continued at the Royal Northern College of Music. After Green retired due to ill health, Hough continued at the RNCM with Derrick Wyndham who was a great influence, particularly in matters technical. For his final period of study Hough went to New York’s Juilliard School where he worked with Adele Marcus and Martin Canin. After his London debut, he won several prestigious prizes and made his debut in New York in 1984. Hough is one of the few English pianists who has maintained a high international profile, and over the last twenty years he has played with all the major orchestras of the world including the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia, Cleveland and many others. He frequently tours America and Canada, gives recitals in many European capitals and often plays in Japan. He has played at all the major festivals including Edinburgh, the Proms, Salzburg, Ravinia, Aspen, Tanglewood and Mostly Mozart.

Although Hough’s repertoire is essentially Romantic, he favours unusual works and has premièred contemporary music such as the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Lowell Lieberman which was dedicated to him. He has an affinity with nineteenth-century music by the great composer-pianists, having an understanding of the style as well as the technique to ensure that physical difficulties and demands are never apparent.

His first important recording, and the one that brought him to the fore, was of two piano concertos by Hummel; although of unfamiliar repertoire, the disc was an award-winner from The Gramophone and was warmly received by the critics. A concert performance of the Hummel concertos at the time of the compact disc release led to Hough being signed by the Virgin label.

One of the best of his early recordings, for Virgin, was a Liszt recital including a fine Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, Rhapsodie Espagnole, Tarantella (from Années de pèlerinage) and Mephisto-Waltz No. 1. Hough’s admiration for the pianists of the past came to the fore when he recorded an album of encores by pianists such as Mischa Levitzki, Ignaz Friedman, Ignacy Paderewski, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Leopold Godowsky and Moriz Rosenthal. The recording of Paul de Schlözer’s Étude in A flat Op. 1 No. 2 (a favourite of Eileen Joyce) is impressive. The success of the album led to The Piano Album Volume 2 which contained more music in a similar vein. The recording of Levitzki’s Enchanted Nymph shows that Hough understands this music completely, playing it with utter conviction and style, and the apparently effortless virtuosity that is so necessary for these compositions. Hough has also recorded mainstream repertoire such as both piano concertos by Brahms as well as his Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5.

Hough also plays chamber music, particularly with cellist Steven Isserlis, with whom he has made three fine discs, and violinists Joshua Bell and Robert Mann with whom he has recorded the sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms for the Musicmasters label. There were also plans to record Brahms’s clarinet sonatas with Benny Goodman which came to nothing as a result of Goodman’s death, although Hough had played the E flat Sonata Op. 120 No. 2 with him at a private concert a few months earlier.

Hough began to record for Hyperion at a time when the company was one of the few exploring unusual repertoire: this gave Hough the opportunity to record music he enjoys to play but would not necessarily programme in concert, or have had the opportunity to record for any other label at the time. His recording of Scharwenka’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor Op. 82 and Emil von Sauer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor won The Gramophone’s Record of the Year Award in 1996. It is a stupendous recording of fiendishly difficult music, made delightful by Hough’s delivery of it with panache and style. Other highlights from his Hyperion catalogue include an extremely fine disc of César Franck containing one of the best recordings of the Prélude, Choral et Fugue. There is also an excellent disc of Mompou, where Hough’s attention to sound, balance and perfect pedalling are evident, and he is fortunate in often being given excellent sound quality of recording for his discs. A disc containing the Piano Sonata in B minor by Liszt coupled with ballades and polonaises prompted the American Record Guide to write, ‘This is a superlative recording, one that defies criticism. Hough’s pianism is evocative, spiritual, and technically and tonally scrupulous. What better compliment could be given than to say that this is the way one imagines these pieces might have sounded when Liszt himself played them?’

Other discs include the complete works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns (winner of The Gramophone’s Record of the Year Award in 2002), and some recordings of English music: a disc of York Bowen and another of short pieces by various British composers including Hough himself. His recordings have also won European awards that include the Diapason d’Or and the Deutsches Schallplattenpreis. A recent recording of the complete works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninov received the highest of praise, many critics finding it the best available version. It was recorded during live performances in Dallas.

Of his chamber collaborations on disc, a highlight is the Cello Sonata in D major Op. 18 by Anton Rubinstein in which Hough and Steven Isserlis give a performance of utter conviction, proving that music of this stature needs only the right performers to make it come alive.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).


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