Stephen Hough: A little night music

Pianists are nocturnal animals - whether they like it or not. Stephen Hough explains why the night and all it represents has inspired the music on his latest cd

A colleague of mine was once approached by a member of the public backstage: “Lovely concert, I must say. Most enjoyable. So what’s your daytime job?”

His response, whether wry or rude, is not recorded, but there’s actually a twist in the tail of the anecdote because a pianist’s real work does happen during the day, in the private intensity of the practice studio. But nevertheless we do gather the fruits at night, and pianists are on the whole nocturnal animals, despite the occasional matinee or coffee-morning concert. We have to come to life, to full alertness, after dark. It’s not just because our audiences finish their daytime jobs at dusk and we are there to provide entertainment, rather there is something about the dangerous emotions unlocked by great music which needs the mystery of darkness for a full impact. Footlights may shine onto the man sitting at the piano but the woman sitting in row D needs obscurity for a fully concentrated concert experience.

I’ve just released a CD called In the Night and all of the pieces on it have some relation to this end of daytime with its implications of the mysterious, the magical, the imaginative - an obsession for so many 19th century painters, poets and musicians. Schumann begins the recital, the miniature masterpiece from his Fantasiestücke op. 12, giving the recording its poetic title and summing up the ethos of the epoch. In the Night suggests being buried, submerged, surrounded by the darkness, and Schumann above all others is the composer most at home in the forest. Night, in the foliage of his fertile imagination, is seldom a time for sleeping.

The all-seeing sun may illuminate our every blink but we (can) look at the moon - in the sky or on a lake. Beethoven did not give his sonata "Quasi una fantasia" op. 27 no. 2 the title "Moonlight" but as it was played to death in the Victorian era this oil-painted romantic image has stuck. Ironically its first movement’s misty pedal marking and slow-moving harmonies are more suggestive of a later period, an early anticipation of impressionism or even New Age; but by the last movement a storm of arpeggios and lightning-flashing accents crosses a clear threshold between classical restraint and romantic wildness. It is a movement without light, almost continually in the minor key - a surge through the night on a horse from the same Dionysian stable as the one pursued by Schubert’s demonic Erlkönig.

Chopin did not invent the title of "nocturne" when used for a single movement salon piece (the Irish composer John Field has that honour), but his corpus of works so-named is a matchlessly rich collection covering most of his creative life. Chopin spent much more time in the audiences of opera houses than he did playing on the stages of concert halls, he composed virtually nothing for the human voice except a few folksong adaptations but when he wrote for the piano the strength of his vocal obsessions becomes clear. He took the style of the bel canto divas of the early 19th century into the palm of his hand and, shrunken in size but not in impact, made miniature operas out of the spun coloratura lines with his fingers. The first of the op. 27 nocturnes is a melodrama of terrifying power despite its mere four-minute length, and at the climatic highpoint of its narrative the music intensifies to a moment of recitative, unusually in the left hand, in octaves, free-falling down to the bottom of the keyboard. The second nocturne is an aria of soaring lyricism and eloquence with a climax more of passion than despair. It’s interesting to note the composer’s metronome marking for this piece: it is surprisingly swift, reminding us that pianists need to breathe as well as singers during their long phrases.

Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke Photograph: Sim Canetty-Clarke/PR

My own second sonata, subtitled notturno luminoso, is a modern, urban night, not one of romantic shadows. Harsh city lights, an electric bulb rather than the moon, dreams as distraction and restlessness rather than romance, arms blocking out the bleary morning sun rather than curled protectively around a lover, a reminder that the alienated 20th century harnessed electric light to hide behind as well as to illuminate. The piece uses tonality for symbolic effect: sharps are light, flats are darkness and naturals the daze of the irrational, the anxious mind’s twilight zone. In fact two-thirds of the sonata uses only white notes, but the scale is B to B - an atonal root, a deceptive phantasm of C major.

The piano was the perfect instrument for the 19th century’s after-hours entertainment, and the salons of Europe were where much of its music was played and for which most of it was written - rooms of rich people, reclining in the candlelit shadows. Schumann’s great cycle Carnaval op. 9 is one of the most sophisticated, inventive examples of salon music, a party of short pieces spinning into the small hours, peopled with characters familiar and strange, real and imaginary, masked, dancing till dawn. Even Chopin himself makes a cameo appearance as one of the characters, significantly represented by a nocturne. And if concert life, public and private, takes place after dusk how much more does a carnival. A recital beginning and ending with Schumann, the arch-romantic, the enigma, the poet whose daytime job was ... Dreaming?

• Stephen Hough’s album In the Night is out now on Hyperion, where you can download Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major Op 27 No 2 for free. He performs at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday 21 June.

Stephen Hough

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