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Talk about filling ‘the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run’. As if it were not time-consuming enough to be a top international concert pianist, with all that entails, Stephen Hough also finds time to compose, paint and write. In 2018 he published his first novel, The Final Retreat. At some point, presumably, he must eat and sleep. But when?

His latest prose offering is a collection of 215 brief essays spread over 408 pages. Many first appeared in the blog he wrote for the Daily Telegraph over a seven-year period. Divided into six sections, few of the essays take more than a couple of minutes to read. To give a sample of the subjects that have caught his attention in the first part (‘Forum’), he ranges from ‘Can atonal music make you cry?’ and ‘Gay pianists: can you tell?’ to ‘My terrible audition tape’ and ‘The Proms’. Mainly he writes about music, playing the piano, and the life of a concert pianist. And he writes like a dream. Every pianist, and certainly anyone aspiring to make a profession out of it, should ‘read, learn and inwardly digest’ these essays, which are at turns insightful, mischievous, urbane, anecdotal and sagacious.

There is rarely black and white in Hough’s world. Discussing Edwardian parlour songs, for instance, he loves the repertoire and the heart-on-sleeve emotions but also understands why the genre went out of fashion: ‘…there was something distasteful in the pleasure of tragic fiction when in wardrobes across the land there hung the fading clothes of millions of men … their owners’ bodies lifeless under the mud of Flanders fields.’

Indeed, the book’s very title derives from this exploratory approach. ‘Give me a rough idea,’ he writes in the introduction, ‘not as in a deliberately coarse or unformed one, rather one that has a beginning but not yet an end.’ Sometimes you wish he’d come offthe fence and land firmly on one side or the other. No wonder he considered being a priest at one time. And it is religion and spiritual matters that form the thought-provoking latter part of the book: ‘What if God doesn’t exist?’, understanding the Mass, abortion, the morality of suicide, his own homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Cumulatively, though not intended as such, the separate parts form a whole self-portrait and quasi-autobiography. Having interviewed Hough on many occasions, I can tell you that he manages effortlessly the difficult trick of transferring his personality and even speech pattern into prose. As in life, so in print, he is good company. I shall keep his book by my bed for some time yet, for it is one to dip into and return to again and again.

JEREMY NICHOLAS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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