In this series of interviews dedicated to the UK – Russia Year of Music Russian award-winning pianist Yulia Chaplina talks to four of her distinguished British colleagues who perform and teach Russian music with great love and passion. Her first interviewee is a British concert pianist, the wonderful Stephen Hough.

Pianist and composer Stephen Hough.ANDREW CROWLEY / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

One of the most distinctive artists of his generation, Stephen Hough combines a distinguished career as a pianist with those of composer and writer. Named by The Economist as one of Twenty Living Polymaths, Hough was the first classical performer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (2001) and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the New Year’s Honours 2014. He was awarded Northwestern University’s 2008 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano, won the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award in 2010, and in 2016 was made an Honorary Member of RPS. Since taking first prize at the 1983 Naumburg Competition in New York, Hough has performed with many of the world’s major orchestras and has given recitals at the most prestigious concert halls. His recent engagements include recitals in Chicago, Hong Kong, London’s Royal Festival Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, the Kennedy Center and Sydney; performances with the Czech, London and New York Philharmonics, the Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, National, Detroit, Dallas, Atlanta and Toronto symphonies, and the Philadelphia, Minnesota, Budapest Festival and Russian National Orchestras; and a performance televised worldwide with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. He is also a regular guest at festivals such as Aldeburgh, Aspen, Blossom, Edinburgh, Hollywood Bowl, Mostly Mozart, Salzburg, Tanglewood, Verbier, Chicago’s Grant Park, Blossom, and the BBC Proms, where he has made over 25 concerto appearances, including playing all of the works written by Tchaikovsky for piano and orchestra over the summer of 2009, a series he later repeated with the Chicago Symphony.

Photo credit: Matt JollyStephen Hough performs at Aldeburgh Festival

Stephen, you play a lot of Russian music, what was the first ever piece you played by a Russian composer?

It was by Prokofiev, when I was about 7 years old: Attrape qui peut from Musiques d’enfants. I remember playing it in a competition and the last octave F went astray. I played an E and F making a nasty ninth.

Has there been anything that inspired you there or something you experienced that helped you understand Russian music better? Do you believe in the existence of a so-called “Russian soul”?

I suppose there is an abstract “Russian soul”, a poetic concept … but I suspect any specific nationalistic skills. I’ve heard French music played wonderfully by Germans, Russian music by Chinese etc. And where are the borders anyway? Was Horowitz Russian or Ukrainian, being born in Kiev? Richter’s roots were German. Nothing makes me happier than to hear some non-British musician playing Elgar from deep inside their souls. Music is for everyone and from everyone.

What do you think is the biggest challenge playing Russian repertoire?

It’s impossible to put it all into one category. To play Rachmaninov requires a particular pianism, rock-solid technique as well as contrapuntal colour and fantasy. Tchaikovsky requires transparency as it can sound opaque and heavy. Scriabin needs an almost French delicacy in places. And so on …  

Stephen Hough.Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Do you have any favourite recordings of Russian Music? Or non- Russian Music by Russian (Soviet) artists?

I love to hear Rachmaninov play his own music. Horowitz is special always. Moiseivitsch, Cherkassky, Ginsberg …

Do you think you could tell if someone is Russian by the sound or interpretation?

Sometimes you can hear a certain quality, particularly from the Soviet times. At its worst a sort of tank-like strength; at its best a golden, noble breadth and power like Emil Gilels.

There are so many excellent Russian composers like Scriabin or Medtner, however they are rarely performed in the West, do you play anything by them or someone else less famous?

I have recorded Scriabin (4th and 5th sonatas), and also de Schlözer and Rubinstein. I played Medtner (the G minor sonata op. 22). I wish more of this wonderful music were in the repertoire of pianists. Medtner is particularly underplayed.

Do you think that the so-called ’Russian School’ of teaching exists or existed, have you ever encountered it? What’s the worst/the best of it if so?

Pianist Stephen Hough / COURTESY PHOTO

At its best it created the most solid, virtuoso pianism, usually with a rich, warm sound too.

You have been to Russia a couple of times, what was your most favourite memory? 

Actually I haven’t been so many times, I wish it were more! But playing Tchaikovsky concerto no. 1 with Mikhail Pletnev conducting was very special.

Do you have any favourite stages or concert halls in Russia? Is the audience different from the West in any way?

There is a deep love for music in Russian audiences. It’s as if it is life and death for them, the connection is so strong. To play for such a public is deeply moving.

Are there some Russian foods you like?

My Russian landlady made me Beef Stroganoff. When I asked for the recipe she replied: “I don’t like to give it out to people because General Stroganoff wrote it out for me himself”!