Stephen Hough: waltzing with Chopin on his new CD

Chopin's waltzes may be mere soufflés, but they are very tasty ones, says the British pianist.

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Pianist Stephen Hough and Ara Vartoukian of Theme and Variations, Stephen's Steinway piano tuner ...
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On your new album you’ve presented the waltzes in chronological order. What does that approach reveal about Chopin’s development in this genre?

Perhaps more than any other works of Chopin, the waltzes were not designed to be in any particular order and certainly not played as a set, but I still thought it was interesting to hear firstly the ones he approved of and published (from his youth and older age), then the ones he did not publish (similarly from youth and older age). The three extra misattributed ones complete the picture. Unlike other works, especially the Polonaises and Scherzos, I don't think there is a significant development from early to late period. Some of the early, unpublished ones are as wonderful and curious as later published ones.

Why were so many of Chopin’s waltzes only published posthumously?

They are mainly slight works. Chopin was fastidious and a perfectionist. I think even the ones he published were not considered as major works by him, but such is his genius that there are no worthless works from his pen.
 
Are there hidden depths to the waltzes or are they really just lightweight works?

 The waltzes are lightweight – mere soufflés ... But who doesn't enjoy one of those?!

Unlike your previous Chopin disc, Late Masterpieces, the works you’re playing here are all essentially miniatures. Is there just as much variety, or is the challenge of recording all the waltzes creating colour and diversity in a more limited program?

I don't think Chopin ever wrote the same piece twice. He had the most rich and fecund imagination. But if we do not expect the waltzes to plumb the depths like the Ballades (or, in miniature form, like the Preludes) they can be seen to be the charming works they are. Even though they are all in 3/4 time I never feel there is a lack of imagination or a monotony.

What do you hope your particular vision of Chopin can bring to these ever-popular, oft-recorded works; especially the ones like the Minute Waltz that have become ubiquitous?

I was looking for elegance, tonal transparency, and graceful rubato when I learned these pieces. I worked on the set for over a year trying to get the right nuances and colour in the sound. One of the biggest challenges (as in all Chopin) is how to make the accompaniment “separate” from the vocal lines. Chopin spoke of the left hand being the accompanist and the right hand the singer – with a different rubato in each. The um cha cha left-hand figures of a waltz need as much thought and work as the right-hand melodies.

You end the album with the E-flat Major Nocturne, but if fits perfectly within this program. Why isn’t it called a waltz?

In a way it not really a waltz, even though the left hand uses a waltz rhythm... But it seemed like a nice way to close the CD (and we had space!).

You’ve recorded on a Yamaha. Was there a specific reason that this piano suited these works?

All the nuance and textures and transparency I was striving for was more possible on the Yamaha I chose than on other instruments. I didn't want a piano with too rich or thick a sound – rather something light, airy, closer to the pianos Chopin himself liked and played. A piano is your voice and this experience was 100% positive for me.

Who are the pianists who inspire you most in this repertoire?

Both Alfred Cortot and Ignaz Friedman have been major influences on me in Chopin playing. Their understanding of the style, in particular the way their sound and their rubato combines in a perfect grace of expression, has always dazzled me. But I didn't listen to anyone else's Chopin Waltzes from the time I started learning them until I went to the recording studio. I want to start always with a blank sheet of paper.

You pose almost like the subject in a Magritte painting in your favourite hat on the covers of the last two albums. What is it about the elegance of this pose that resonates with you when you think about Chopin?

The covers were really an accident! A friend took a photo of me at the Art Institute in Chicago wearing a bowler in front of a Rothko, which I liked and wanted to use. When it came to the second CD it seemed a nice idea to continue the pattern. Who knows about the future?


Stephen Hough's Chopin Waltzes album on Hyperion is reviewed in the October Piano Issue of Limelight. Get your copy of the magazine here.

 

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This article appeared in the October, 2011 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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