Stephen Hough Notebook
Iwas just back home from a gruelling five-week tour of America. The post had been dealt with. the bills (mostly) paid, and I was looking forward to four weeks in London, when the phone rang, early on Tuesday morning.
"Stephen, there has been a cancellation this week in Rotterdam. Brahms's Second Piano Concerto with the Philharmonic can you leave for the airport straight away to catch the 10.40 flight and the one o'clock rehearsal?"
I took a deep breath and asked for 10 minutes to think it over. The phone rang exactly 600 seconds later.
"Yes, I'll do it, but I can't catch that flight. The only way would be to leave later this afternoon and just do the dress rehearsal tomorrow morning."
Amazingly, they agreed. I gulped down some coffee, showered, re-packed my weary suitcase, and made my way to the piano to see if the piece was still in my fingers.
The Braluns Second is really the most challenging of all the piano concertos. A few are its equal in musical profundity, others outdo it in technical demands, but none has the combination of so many difficulties in discovering and achieving the perfect balance of head, heart and hands. You need to ride the orchestra like a cowboy on a stallion in one section, and then negotiate intimatchamber-music moments as if guiding a gentle pony along a winding track. The piece's vast architectural structure (over 45 minutes) needs holding together with a sober, firm hand, yet there are moments where you have to caress the music as if drifting in a dream.
We had four performances in four and a half days. but mornings and afternoons were free after day one, so on Thursday the conductor. his girlfriend. and I went to Delft, a 15-minute train ride away. We visited the two grand, central churches, the Gude Kerk and the Nieuwe Kerk the latter new in 1383, and where Vermeer had been baptised.1 saw in stone, wood and paint what I had realised clearly the previous day when I asked the girls at the front desk of the Hilton hotel about the whereabouts of the nearest Catholic church, "I'm not religious," piped one, as if being a vegetarian would prevent her from knowing the address of the nearest steakhouse. After a search in various drawers and much tapping on the hotel's computer she couldn't find any Mass times or church locations. It was obviously not a regular request. Eventually someone else behind the desk remembered a church ("I think it's Catholic"), but it turned out not to be close, and the Mass time (singular on a Sunday) I was given was incorrect.
But back to Delft: in the beautiful Nieuwe Kerk, I found myself standing in a beautiful shell. An elegantly proportioned, clean, wellcared-for shell scooped-out by 16th-century Reformation then emptied-out by 20thcentury alienation. There is one service a week, and the large, majestic space seems totally inappropriate for its present-day purpose as if one were to keep one's slippers in a bejewelled gold trunk.
Similarly, in its neighbour, the Oude Kerk (where Vermeer is buried), function and form have fragmented in history with violence. but now with a smile and a centrally heated handshake. The dust had settled long ago and has now been vacuumed away. It's possible that more people attended our concerts this week than attended church services in Rotterdam on Sunday. Even sceptical Braluns would have been shocked.
The orchestral manager, during a wonderful meal after one of the concerts, said thoughtfully: "The Dutch distrust pleasure. It's the Calvinism" though thankfully there was not much evidence of that in the musicmaking: the orchestra's strings soared radiantly through the concerto's singing lines. Perhaps the pleasure of great music, which celebrates yet rises above the joys of the flesh, might help all of us to begin to fill the empty shells in our lives.