Pianist Stephen Hough has won Limelight’s International Artist of the Year 2016.

The public have spoken… We asked you, our readers, to vote online for a pair of Limelight 2016 Artists of the Year. Combined with our critics’ votes, this is who you chose…

I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted to be chosen as artist of the year – It was a lovely surprise. I always feel very, very close to Australia in so many ways and I enjoy visiting and playing there as much as anywhere in the world, so this makes me particularly happy. – Stephen Hough

In his lovely remembrance of the great pianist and polymath Charles Rosen, published in The New Yorker only a few days after the latter’s death in December 2012, Jeremy Denk writes, “Should a musician have a brain? I mean, a brain over and above what’s necessary to move the fingers, eat, sleep, make charming chit-chat at gala dinners with sponsors, etc. We say ‘thinking musician’ as if it were a freakish breed, like a peacock that talks, distracting you from its glorious feathers.”

And yet Stephen Hough, perhaps like pianist and poet Alfred Brendel too, is one of a “freakish breed”. Not because he is a thinking musician – which he is – but because he is a kind of Philosopher King, whose demesne is all of art, and therefore of life.

Those who may have heard Hough in concert earlier this year for Musica Viva will remember as Limelight reviewer Brett Allen-Bayes does an “all too rare piano recital which was packed with intellectual insight as much as technical thrill and adventure,” and in which Hough’s own Piano Sonata III (Trinitas) was an undoubted highlight – not bad going considering that it was programmed in the company of masterworks by Schubert, Franck and Liszt!

Like Rosen and Brendel, Hough, who in 2014 was made a CBE and in 2016 an honorary fellow of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, places great store in clarity and precision of feeling as much as of thought. But if one sometimes wishes in his playing for more meat on the bones, in those recent live performances, as much as in his 2016 Gramophone Award-shortlisted recording of some of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, one is reminded that true poetry can be declarative as much as demonstrative.

True poetry is also to be found in Hough’s various eloquent writings for publications such as The Guardian and Gramophone, as well as in his own booklet notes for many of his 50-plus recordings: “But by the end of Franck’s life we find a wonderful integration in the late masterpieces; the cauldron of the Quintet has become distilled and purified, though no less expressive; and the religiosity in some of the sacred works has shed its priggish pietism and taken on the patina of a genuine spirituality.” (from César Franck Piano Music, Hyperion CDA66918)

And if Hough is as modest about his vibrant, gestural abstract paintings as his Renaissance Man status, even there one finds that harmony and vitality, which so often springs from an insatiable curiosity about the world and an imaginative faculty that still finds a use for faith in a higher power. Stephen Hough is indeed a freakish breed. – Will Yeoman

Our Interview with Stephen Hough