Stephen Hough on Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos
Pianist Stephen Hough talks to BBC Music Magazine as he prepares to play all of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos at the 2009 BBC Proms
Over the course of this year’s Proms you’re playing all Tchaikovsky’s concertos – how do they compare to each other?
It’s a fascinating mix of pieces. Unlike, say Beethoven’s five piano concertos which are all roughly equally known and played, with Tchaikovsky you have the most played piano concerto in the repertoire historically, the First; you have another huge concerto which is almost never played – the Second – and which for the first 60 years after Tchaikovsky’s death was only ever played in the Alexander Siloti version which is much cut; then you have the last piece he ever wrote, the Third, of which he completed one movement. Then you have this strange piece that I never knew until I started working on the complete works – the Concert Fantasia – which I’ve fallen very much in love with. It’s a wonderful piece full of humour and beautiful melodies. It’s a beautiful addition to the repertoire.
Tchaikovsky wasn’t a pianist – does this pose any challenges in the piano writing?
Quite significant challenges. Tchaikovsky’s concertos do not lie easily under the hand. They’re awkwardly written – without that kind of hand-in-glove pianism that you get in someone like in Rachmaninov or Chopin. With Tchaikovsky, it’s hewn out of stone. It’s a challenge not just to play the notes but make them have some kind of clarity and textural interest. It’s very easy for Tchaikovsky’s piano music to sound thick, lumpy and opaque. To get a transparency in the middle of that is quite a challenge.
Have you made any unexpected discoveries when working on the four pieces?
The Concert Fantasia, definitely! I played it for the first time this month in Brisbane. I knew it was a good piece but after playing it, it’s one I’d like to offer to orchestras and keep in my repertoire. One of my favourite moments is in the first movement. It begins with the piano and orchestra playing together in an opening section that's very much like ballet music – light and graceful, inoffensive and charming. Then the orchestra plays this cadence and it stops, there’s this big pause. The piano then plays this absolutely enormous ten-minute-long cadenza. The piece has only lasted about four minutes by this point! The cadenza has a pseudo-serious ending, going slower and slower and softer and softer to finally end on a C major chord, then a D major chord then a third, even longer D major chord. There’s another great big pause… and the piece starts all over again as if nothing has happened. It’s the most marvellous moment of humour. The orchestra’s turning round to the pianist and saying, OK, you’ve shown off now for ten minutes. We’re going to get back to the piece you were playing before the cadenza.
What’s special for you about performing at the Proms?
The Proms is still the most spectacular festival for music in the world. I don’t think there’s any argument about that in the sense that they have more concerts, more repertoire, more interesting ideas and more audience going and so on. It’s full of superlatives: superlatives of tradition but also of innovation. Every concert seems to have new ideas while holding onto the traditions people love – the Beethoven Ninth Symphony performance and the Last Night of the Proms. I’ve never actually attended the First Night of the Proms before so this’ll be my first time doing that and I’m very excited about it.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
• Take a look at our exclusive guide to the world's greatest classical music festival in this month's issue
Image: Grant Hiroshima