Pianist Stephen Hough plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major followed by Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini at Chautauqua on Thu, July 28 with the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, under Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni. If you’re a fan of virtuosic piano music, this is not to be missed.
Stephen Hough kindly agreed to indulge my curiosity about the program — well, mostly!
ST: In the Liszt, the double octave leaps with which the piano makes its virtuosic entrance would strike terror into the heart of most pianists. How would you advise a student to prepare for a high-wire moment like this?
SH: I would advise students never to talk about this in interviews!
In case you’d like to make your own evaluation of the passage in question, here it is:
ST: Liszt’s first concerto was premiered in 1855. We heard another major concerto of the 1850s earlier in the season (Brahms D minor), but they each seem to be conceived very differently. Was Liszt attempting something new with his first concerto?
SH: I think they were both attempting new things with these concertos — and it’s not possible to think of two more different pieces. The structure of the Brahms is expansive, stretching outwards, whereas in the Liszt everything contracts and tightens. Brahms imagines the piano and orchestra as part of a mighty conversation in a symphonic setting, whereas with Liszt it’s all about the soloist at centre-stage. The few moments of chamber-music-like deference are brief and then Liszt, the diva, returns to the spotlight.
ST: Liszt was both composer and performer, as are you. When you perform a work by another composer/performer, does your own experience of composition suggest a different reading of the piece?
SH: Perhaps in a piece like this when you need to have a sense of improvisation it helps to be involved in the directly creative world of composition. It isn’t just playing notes on the page but conjuring up the character of Liszt through the notes.
Here’s Stephen Hough speaking about Liszt’s B minor Sonata:
ST: Many in the audience will be familiar with Paganini’s theme and Rachmaninov’s variations on it. What can they expect of Lutosławski’s version?
SH: It’s like eating a familiar dish which has had lots of spice added. The harmonies supporting the famous tune are piquant and sharp and the textures sparkle like a slice of lime in the driest martini. Paganini’s violin has been re-tuned in a wonderfully strange way…
ST: Is there anything in the pairing of the Liszt and Lutosławski that we should listen out for?
SH: I’ve never paired these pieces before, but as it was Liszt who was Paganini’s greatest disciple (and publicist) it’s nice to tease out that link. Both pieces use the piano and orchestra in a colourful, imaginative way, and the piano glitters from start to finish.