Stephen Hough likes an element of danger to his pianos.
Evoking the Japanese delicacy fugu (blowfish), he seeks that fine line between poisonous risk and tantalising taste, accepting fallibility as crucial to his craft. The piano is a highly complex instrument, with a mechanism that has been honed over hundreds of years. But Hough wants to avoid the mechanical, an instrument so perfect it sounds like it has come off an assembly line. What he looks for, instead, is the human, a piano with personality, with bite, as to him the piano is a voice: “It’s like saying to a singer, here are your vocal chords for the evening.” Each concert is a new encounter.
The piano has been both a constant in Hough’s life and something of his own making. He became entranced with the instrument at his aunt’s home – “I would play things with one finger” – and begged his parents to buy him one until they eventually agreed. That old German upright was played incessantly as from his first piano lesson, Hough decided he wanted to be a concert pianist. Heather Slade-Lipkin introduced Hough to the world of the grand piano, before he went on to study with Slade-Lipkin’s own teacher, Gordon Green.
It was Green who had a marked influence on Hough’s performance practice. “He was very concerned with developing what was individual about the student … for his students to all sound different, because they were different.” Hough realised these words at 15 when he performed Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. It was his first experience of really getting inside a piece of music and, having felt it, he knew he wouldn’t want to play if he couldn’t achieve that sensation.
“When I walk out of the wings to play a concert, in a sense I am the composer, I’m bringing their message,” Hough says. “I have to speak the music from deep inside and with utter conviction … so the best scenario is working with works which give life to you and you give life to them.” The intermediate between hands and score is the keyboard, which, honouring Green’s tradition, is why Hough seeks an individual sound. It is why he is so grateful to collaborate with Ara Vartoukian of Theme & Variations Piano Services when in Sydney. He trusts him as he would a Japanese chef, to keep him safe while living, just slightly, on the edge.
Celebrating their 35th anniversary, Theme & Variations Piano Services is Sydney’s premier piano store and proud sponsor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Specialising in new and used pianos for sale, plus piano related services including piano tuning, repairs and restorations.