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Three grand pianos – two Blüthners and a Steinway – take up most of the space in Stephen Hough’s sound-proofed basement flat, just off the Abbey Road. He needs them all, he explains: the Steinway as his stage instrument and the two older keyboards to yield a particular singing tone, ‘a lovely cantabile’.
With Hough, it’s all about an elusive sound – the exact aura that Rachmaninov conveyed while playing his concertos (he has exhumed scores with the master’s own markings), the forgotten inspirations of minor composers, put together in chillingly thoughtful recitals. He records for a bijou label, Hyperion, in his own time, his own way.
The least showmanlike of performers, Hough, 45, is recognised by his peers as a pianist’s pianist – a contemplative artist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and a microscopic command of detail. Six years ago he won a ‘Genius Fellowship’, half a million dollars from the MacArthur Foundation, its only musical recipient. He has been marked out as Nobel class. And now he’s fervently composing.
A Mass is in rehearsal, a full-length service for Westminster Abbey where England crowns its monarchs. And not just one new Mass but two, the other to be sung at Westminster Cathedral, seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese. Two irreconcilable creeds in a month. A unity of faith. What on earth does Hough believe in?
The simple truths, he says, unassumingly. ‘I was baptised a Methodist,’ he relates over tall lattes at our local sippery, ‘and in my teens I veered to a more evangelical Christianity. Then, one summer at Dartington when I was 18, I went to hear the monks at Buckhurst Abbey for morning mass and felt elevated. So I converted to Catholicism.’ This was no light matter in sectarian Liverpool, where even football allegiance is determined by religious schisms. His great-grandmother would not allow anyone into the house in a green shirt, his gran refused to speak to him again (happily, she relented).
No sooner was he baptised than Hough wrote to the Franciscans, asking to train as a priest; ‘they very wisely wrote back and told me to take a couple of years and go to Juilliard first.’ He won a piano competition at 21, abandoned a doctorate and mastered 15 concertos in a year to tour with the world’s great orchestras.
Some part of him, though, still wants to serve Mass. ‘It was always in the back of my mind, but I realised I don’t have to do that literally by stopping the musical things.’ He is not the first to suggest that concert tails can feel pretty much like a cassock.
He started writing a Mass because Martin Baker, master of music at Westminster Cathedral, asked him for one. Hough had the idea of crossing William Blake’s ‘Little Lamb’ poem with the Agnus Dei. Baker, taken aback, warned that a secular text could not be admitted to the Roman Mass. ‘So I took it down the road to the easy-going Anglicans who said, “oh, I think we can do this …”’ Hough called the piece ‘Mass of Innocence and Experience’; it pitches boys’ voices against the hardness of men’s.
Back to his original commission, he was starting a second Mass when fate took a turn. ‘I was playing with the Halle Orchestra last September, staying with my mother for a few days. There’s not a lot to do in Weaverham, Cheshire, and I was pulling together the sketches of the Catholic Mass on the piano in her house. I packed my bags after the last concert, put the sketches in my bag and drove down the M6. Somewhere on the M1, I hit a lorry and went up in the air, over and over in my Suzuki Waggon at 80 miles an hour until I hit the hard shoulder. Whilst I was turning over, trying as best I could to prepare for death, I prayed that God would have mercy on me and I felt regret that I would not hear the Mass. And then I landed, still alive and completely untouched, apart from a gash on my forehead. And there, in the bag, were my Mass sketches intact.’
He named the work Missa Mirabilis and wrote its Agnus Dei while waiting four hours for a brain scan at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. The accident, he insists, didn’t change him spiritually. ‘Rather, it gave me a certain not-caring quality. Coming out of education, we’re always trying to impress people and gain their approval. There has to be a point where one leaves that behind and is not afraid what people think.’
Why me? he wondered after the crash. Why had he lived when so many die? He reads theology for relaxation and wanted a handbook that would put him directly in touch with Bible wisdom, ‘all the little cherries without the heavy cake’. So he compiled a small volume, The Bible as Prayer, published last month by Continuum. It is a non-sectarian travel companion, containing many of the less reverent scriptural passages and, by way of introduction, a rabbinic parable. ‘Proverbs are so wonderful,’ he smiles, ‘I love the line: Cursed is the man who speaks loud in the morning.’
Neither preachy nor in the least bit sanctimonious, Hough balances a gay lifestyle – his partner is a music publicist – against the disapproval of Church teachings and has written quite comfortably about his position in The Tablet, the British Catholic weekly God, he believes, did not intend any man to be alone. ‘I believe,’ he wrote, ‘that, as with slavery, the Churches will have to re-evaluate their teachings on this issue – but that’s for another book.’
In between one Mass and the next, he flies to Berlin to perform Rachmaninov with Simon Rattle in a forest clearing before a crowd of 25,000 and two million more on TV. It is the Paganini Variations, music for a summer’s evening - ‘Rachmaninov for people who don’t like Rachmaninov,’ quips Hough. He is good at glib lines that mask the depth and range of his musical passions, whether for the opulence of Poulenc’s church music or the asperities of Britten. He is more than a little shy of having a repertoire three times larger than the next pianist, adopting a reticence of dress and gesture on stage that is almost self-denying. He is but an oracle for his composers.
‘I like the formality of the concert,’ says Stephen Hough, unfashionably, ‘and I like the fact that as a performer I am not getting in the way of the text. The text is greater than us. If I were to come out on stage, all me-me-me, that would spoil the magic of the ceremony.’
* Missa Mirabilis is sung at Westminster Cathedral on Sunday June 10, 10.30 a.m. (entrance free); Mass of Innocence and Experience is performed at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday July 10, 7.30 p.m.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]