The BBC Proms
29 August 2009 22:50
Lang Lang performed Chopin's 2nd Concerto at the Prom on the 27th of
August 2009. He is undoubtedly the world's most popular musician among
children and young peeople. No pop or rock musician has ever matched
his popularity around the world. When he appeared on Chinese
television, 800 milllion people tuned in. That's about 2 thirds of that
The largest audience ever in Britain was
abourt 33 million who watched the World Cup between England and Germany
back in 1966. Even that wasn't 2 thirds of the population. Today, when
17 million watch such as 'Britain's Got Talent, The Final', it's
considered a gargantuan audiencee.
Critics enjoy slagging off Lang Lang, calling him a "vulgar showman".
This from critic Michael White of The Telegraph:
It’s ironic that the Chinese pianist Lang
Lang is in residency this month at the Barbican. You may not like his vulgar,
self-indulgent playing - me, I hate it - but you can’t deny he has charisma (of
a brutally commercial kind); and back in China he’s the role model for
literally millions upon millions of young players. Every second child in China
seems to want to learn the piano. And I’ve seen this for myself.
In Beijing there are teaching factories
where six or seven hundred infant pianists pile in every Saturday and bash away
at six or seven hundred pianos in sound-proofed cubicles. They do it with a
grim determination that’s not terribly attractive to a Western liberal
sensibility, and I don’t say that the process turns them all into great artists.
But it does provide a grounding from which armies of extremely promising young
Chinese pianists are emerging.
Meanwhile, here in Britain, we have
nothing to compare. You don’t believe me? Count the heads of British pianists
as against their foreign counterparts in UK music colleges. And check out LIPC
later in the month. If you can bear the shame.
There are about 40 million children
learning to play piano, simply because they want to be like Lang Lang.
One is forced to wonder if critics actually know anything about what they are critcizing.
What are Michael White's credentials? It's my guess, that if these critics were to hear a
Lang Lang performance, but could not see him, and they were told it was Ashkenazy or
Argerich who was playing, would they be able to respond by exclaiming, "No it's not, that's
Lang Lang!"? I suspect not!.
Stephen Hough At The Proms 2009
Stephen Hough: a polymath prepares for Prom nights. The pianist talks about rethinking Tchaikovsky and figuring out life as a Catholic undefined.
By Richard Morrison.
Quietly and unfussily the Cheshire-born pianist Stephen Hough has conquered the music world. Russian virtuosi come and go in a whirl of hammered octaves. American whiz-kids dazzle briefly then fizzle away. From the Far East an endless parade of mercurial youths flit like butterflies over the ivories without ever ruffling the soul. Hough’s progress, by contrast, has been so stealthy that when Gramophone magazine and readers of The Times recently anointed his mesmerising Hyperion recording of the five Saint-Saëns piano concertos as the best classical CDs of the past 30 years (beating Karajan, Rattle, et al), the reaction in some musical households must have been “Stephen Hoo?”
Yet his rise continues, with a unique accolade by the Proms. In the coming season the 47-year-old played all four Tchaikovsky piano concertos — starting on the First Night with No 3. So the obvious first question is: why does almost everybody know No 1, and almost nobody know the other three? Is there a rational reason?
“There are reasons,” Hough replies, “but I don’t think that they are rational or particularly intelligent. The First is such a great piece that it works even in less good performances. The Second, by contrast, needs to be played not only more often but better. It must be held together architecturally, otherwise it can seem repetitive and overlong. But I love it. Although very different from the First, it’s every bit as good.”
But hasn’t Hough doctored it a bit? “Yes, I do make one significant change in the slow movement,” he says. “Right from the first performance people felt that it didn’t have enough piano in it. Tchaikovsky’s own letters suggest that he wasn’t happy. It’s as if the soloist leaves the room, the host absent from his own party. And it does feel weird to perform. You play your pants off in the first movement, then just let everyone else take over. So at one point I have rescored the solo violin and cello parts for the piano.”
Doesn’t Hough worry about getting into trouble with Tchaikovsky scholars for tampering with the great man’s notes? “Well, one of the chief scholars heard me playing my version in America and he didn’t notice that we’d changed anything, although he said that we managed the slow movement well!”
What about the Third and Fourth Concertos? Do they deserve resuscitation? “The Fourth, which is really the Concert Fantasia, is unjustly neglected,” Hough says. “It’s a very attractive, balletic piece. The Third wasn’t finished, and had a curious history — it started life as a sketch for what Tchaikovsky thought would be his Sixth Symphony, until he wrote the Pathétique. So he decided to turn the original piece into a piano concerto. But he never finished it, so we have this single movement. Unless you really love Tchaikovsky, you wouldn’t necessarily choose to play it.”
Curiously, Hough never studied the Tchaikovsky concertos, not even the ubiquitous No 1, while he was a student (at Chetham’s School and the Royal Northern College in Manchester, then at the Juilliard School in New York). “Everyone else learnt No 1, and I didn’t want to enter into that competitive thing you get at music colleges,” he says, revealingly. “But about four years ago I was teaching a student who was working on No 1, and I felt the music starting to unfold like a flower. I decided to learn it there and then.”
And does the elusive personality of Tchaikovsky also “unfold like a flower” through these piano concertos? In recent years there’s been a furious debate about the nature of Tchaikovsky’s life and, particularly, his death. Where does Hough stand on the theory that Tchaikovsky deliberately drank untreated water during a cholera outbreak to take his own life?
“There’s no conclusive evidence either way, but I’m convinced that he didn’t commit suicide,” Hough says. “When they told Tchaikovksy that he had cholera he was shocked, which isn’t the response of someone who had decided to kill himself. And there’s another issue. He was slightly snobbish and cholera was seen very much as a working-class death — something you got if your hygiene wasn’t up to scratch. Psychologically, too, suicide doesn’t feel right. Tchaikovsky was in a good mood. He was happy with the reception for the Pathétique. He realised he had written a masterpiece and was accepting new commissions.”
Why, then, was the suicide myth (if it is a myth) perpetrated? Hough has his own rather wild (or rather, Wilde) conspiracy theory. “Tchaikovsky died at around the time of the Oscar Wilde trials, and there was such anti-homosexual hysteria surrounding them. I just wonder if the suicide rumour gained credence because people didn’t want to admit that this homosexual genius was a normal happy person like anyone else. And of course in the 20th century the suicide theory also suited the Soviet view of homosexuality.”
Would rejection of the suicide theory change our view of Tchaikovsky’s music and the man himself? “Certainly of the man,” Hough says. “If you think of him as a self-loathing neurotic you get the wrong picture. He was very passionate, and of course depressed at times. Which Russian isn’t? But he always pulled out of these moods.”
Homosexuality features large in Hough’s thinking right now. He has already written eloquently — in newspapers and on his blog — about being both gay and Roman Catholic (twice in his life, he says, he came close to entering the priesthood). [Writing on the subject in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, Hough commented that St Paul’s prohibitions against homosexuality have to be considered in the context of their time. “As with slavery,” he added, “the Churches will have to re-evaluate their teaching on the issue.”
Now he is bringing the two strands together by writing a book about gay theology. “I think the title of it will be It is Not Good for the Man to be Alone,” he says. Meaning what? “Well, it’s taken from the Creation story in Genesis: the observation that everything God sees in the Universe is good, and the first thing that isn’t good is this isolated human being without a partner. I want to tie that into the idea that if homosexuality is in nature, which we now know it is, then God must think it’s good.”
It won’t be Hough’s first religious book. Two years ago this remarkable polymath (he also composes, writing music he describes as “tonal with a twist”) brought out The Bible as Prayer, a compendium of what he calls “highlights” from the Old and New Testaments. Coming from a fiercely Protestant family (his great-grandfather was head of the Orange Lodge in Liverpool) his conversion to Catholicism at 16 must have been a huge wrench. “Yes, I suppose that in part it was my teenage rebellion,” he says. “The equivalent, for me, of taking drugs. It happened while I was attending the Dartington Summer School in Devon. I stumbled across morning Mass at Buckfast Abbey and was entranced by it, not just because it was a beautiful ceremony but because it reached beyond the everyday. And I found it intellectually convincing .”
How does his faith help him as a man and a musician? “It has given me a perspective,” Hough replies. “I won a big piano prize when I was 21, the Naumburg Competition, and was completely unprepared for the life and pressures that followed. I had a difficult few years and realised that I had to develop better physical, mental and spiritual health if I was to survive. I had to adopt the attitude that, within the big picture of the Universe, this next concert really doesn’t matter hugely — though of course one wants to play one’s best.”
And how does that relate specifically to Christianity? “Well, St Francis said that the Crucifixion involves the three things we most fear — suffering, disgrace and death. So if they cease to worry you, there’s no reason not to be happy for the rest of your life. I now believe that there isn’t any suffering or failure — in one’s career or personal life — that really matters in the end. Having said that, I’m conscious that I haven’t yet suffered much. Let’s see if I can stand by my beliefs when the real thing comes along.”
Stephen Hough played at the First Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall, SW7 (020-7589 8212), and then on July 28, Aug 8 and 28 2009.
That performance by Stephen Hough was superb on Friday (28th August 2009), far better than the audience deserved I thought. You may have noticed that he didn't do an encore on this occasion. I suspect it's because the audience didn't ask for one. They don't ask, they don't get. Their applause was so lacking in enthusiasm, just so formal. He was better than that.
More Stephen Hough At The Proms
This year I’m playing all four Tchaikovsky works for piano and orchestra over the course of the season, and tonight I play the most unusual of them - the last piece he wrote, only one movement completed before his death, the quirky 3rd Piano Concerto with its colossal cadenza. Although I’ve performed at the Proms over a dozen times over the years since my early 20s, I’ve never played on the opening night before. There is an extra frisson of excitement to be involved at the very start of such an extensive feast, and the addition of the ‘live’ BBC2 and Radio 3 broadcasts injects that extra twist of adrenaline into the mix. We need enough nerves to rise up to the occasion, but not too much so that we spin out of control. Despite the pressures of a concert like this viewed from in front of the piano on stage, out of my right eye is glimpsed the wonderful Proms audience, one of the friendliest and most supportive in the world. There is the sense that the thousands of people filling the hall really want to be there. They have not just bought season-tickets months in advance out of habit or duty, but have often walked up to the door on a whim, much as one might decide at the last minute to see a movie - and, if standing in the arena, they will have paid a lot less. Tourists, Londoners, students, the unemployed and stockbrokers mingle, listen and applaud in perfect social counterpoint.
The perennial fluidity and invention of the Proms is a constant source of wonder. Its British identity is held as firmly as a bulldog’s jaw, yet it presents more international artists, orchestras and works in its weeks’ duration than any other festival anywhere. It keeps alive the antiquated idea that ‘live’ music heard in concert might still be an exciting way to spend an evening, yet the central role of the BBC – radio, television and internet – ensures as rich and vital a feast of broadcasting as it’s possible to imagine. The Proms are sheer good fun, but also surprising, often challenging, never snobbish. The most seasoned concert goer will always find something which he has never heard before (not counting the many world premieres), but there are enough of the great standard classics to seduce the most innocent classical music virgin. And the sheer variety! Where else could a semi-staged Gilbert and Sullivan opera and an all-Harrison Birtwhistle concert sit side-by-side with such consonance and naturalness? Where else can over 5,000 people choose either to sit upstairs with Stella McCartney bags on their laps, or lie on duffle bags on the floor in the arena (yes, literally), with no real distinction or censure. And the huge, magnificent dome in which the concerts take place – the Victorian Albert Hall; a temple of extravagance, exuberance and eccentricity, where Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand can seem to have space to spare, yet the faintest whisper of a chamber choir’s last breath meets the ear through the silence.
It is a festival of Hope and Glory; and, through modern technology from radio to wireless internet, its reach is wider still, and wider.
My Comments On This:
I saw the performance of the No 1 last night (8th August) on TV. I don't think I've ever known it be played as well as this, the man (Stephen Hough) is a genius. He did in fact (during a chat afterwards) confirm what I've believed for a long long time, that being that contrary to widespread belief, the Rach 3 is NOT the most difficult piano concerto of all, this Tchaikovsky is. Stephen Hough said, "I've spoken to many top pianists about this and they all agree, give us Rach 3 any day, no problem, but this one is a nightmare."