Stephen Hough tells Igor Toronyi why he is lucky (and surprised) to be alive It will be one of the most eagerly awaited musical events of the year. This Sunday morning, the choir of Westminster Cathedral will sing the first performance of a Mass by one of the most popular and critically acclaimed pianists in the world, Stephen Hough. Late last year, however, the world very nearly lost both.
Hough was returning from a recital, driving down the Ml.
"I was in the middle lane and a lorry came up from the slow lane in front of me," he says.
"I remember thinking that he had come out a little too close for cornfon. So I looked in my mirror and went into the right lane and the car suddenly span out of control."
As he tried to recover. the car flipped over and Hough went with it.
"As I was turning I thought: ah, this is it, I'm finished, this is the end of my life," he says matter-offactly, relating the events without visible emotion. "What a shame, all my lovely friends and the things that I wanted to do and so on, you know..."
He was conscious of praying. "I was repenting of what I had done wrong and hoping that I would have a happy death and so on. And then I landed on the hard shoulder and realised that I wasn't dead."
The car radio was still playing Classic FM.
The lorry driver and another man had stopped and were now helping him climb out of the car. Miraculously he was completely unharmed.
Still rammed in among the wreckage, however, was his suitcase, in it the only copy of three freshly completed movements of his latest composition, his Mass for Westminster Cathedral.
He told the towage people that he really needed his case because he had "stuff' in it.
"I thought, I'm going to get that case if it's the last thing... and I just wrenched the thing out. I mean, I don't know how I had the energy, I was almost bending the steel of the car." If you've ever seen him play, however, the fact that his huge workman's hands could bend metal would not be such a surprise.
Thankfully he his hands and his score survived. He named the work Missa Mirabilis.
He said he was conscious, as he was somersaulting on the Ml, of feeling regret that he would never get to hear the piece.
"Someone had other ideas.
He finished off much of the Agnus Dei in St Mary's Hospital while waiting for a brain scan. In this context one can understand why the writing in the section is so frenzied.
"The organ keeps repeating the motif of the Agnus Dei again and again. I hope it's not too hysterical," he says looking actually rather concerned.
The rest of the piece was written in three intensive days before the car crash. as if in one big bake.
"The Creed, I remember, on the first of these days, just really wrote itself from beginning to end in one great span. I sat at the piano for about four or five continuous hours that was exciting."
The idea for the Kyrie came to him on another motorway drive and was jotted down on the back of a map while parked at a service station.
Back in his flat, there is a pile of these jottings on one of the three grands that fit tightly into his piano room, all musical ideas for future compositions another Mass, organ music, a violin concerto, some Mozart transformations.
A lot of them were done on the back of ballet programme notes, he tells me as he rifles through them.
"I mean, I love the ballet, but I often get a bit bored, so I..." he picks one up: "This was an Agnus Dei thing from Mayerling."
It's typical of Hough that such a sordid ballet could provide the background to his musical thoughts on the Lamb of God. But then he likes to mix things up. The Benedictus has, he says, the whiff of a 1950s pop song and the Credo, rather audaciously, is about disbelief.
"I had this vision of the boys singing Credo and then the men singing what the Credo was about and not believing it, a kind of tussle and the whole thing is like a collapse of faith, ending with a literal collapse, life eternal hardly able to be sung."
Is this his disbelief, I ask?
"No. But I don't think there's anyone who can comfortably take the Creed and say, ah yes, fine, I don't have any problem with this. Cardinal Newman said: 'I have thousands of difficulties but no doubts.' I think that's quite a good way of thinking about it.
"Also, I'd like to think that Christ has compassion for those who don't believe."
While we are talking, I find it quite tricky to stay focused, not just because of the complexity of some of his religious ideas he very nearly became a priest but more because of the paintings that are scattered behind him and which, whenever they meet the eye, cling.
They're his paintings: the rhythms and colours of Howard Hodgkin, the texture of Frank Auerbach. They work perfectly as metaphors for his own performances, refulgent colours and a variety of abstract subtleties.
And how exactly does one human get all these things done? Well, Opus Dei helped out here. Hough was a member for three years and one thing it taught him was how to get as much as you can out of the day he's also a very accomplished writer. Though it now means he finds it very difficult to relax.
"I find it very hard just to do nothing," he says.
In teaching him how to make the most of things Opus Dei also had him out there catching converts.
"I did feel sometimes that one was encouraged to make friends with people with an ulterior motive. to bring them to Christ or to bring them into Opus Dei or to get money from them."
It wasn't for him: Jesus, he thought, would not have made friends like this."I like to think that when Christ had dinner with people, he was just a good dinner companion," he says. But the intellectual rigour that drew him to the group has remained with him. He tells me how hard he's finding the business of letting his compositions go.
"I think I'm a control freak as far as the Mass goes, I'm trying to make everything as specific as I possibly can, even with metronome marks and marking accelerandos."
There's an incredible vulnerability in composition, he tells me, and, despite his phlegmatic exterior, he's not immune to criticism. After starting to compose from a very young age with Mendelssohnian precociousness, he wrote a Mass at 13 he stopped almost completely when, in 1981,a friend, a New York composition student, took a look at some of his stuff and said it was no good. "Don't bother composing, just play", he told him.
"And actually instead of just thinking, oh, he's jealous or being stupid and forgetting what he said, I actually took it to heart and! stopped composing."
He didn't start up again until 2000. But he more than made up for it last year, composing more in one year than he hadbne in the previous 20. And at lie beginning of this year came a vilely praised cello concerto for Skien Isserlis and the Liverpool Pltharrnenic, which evoked a mauiin turn-ofthe-century world, vh sti atches of Mahler and Delius The influences thisime ate Poulenc, Britten anckerui eth Leighton.
"And the climax is:Imoist, sort of, a little... I hate Nay Puccini because it isn't actuii, its still got some astringencput it's very emotional.
"But I don't knowilot cof modem Masses, so Ih hoping that it doesn't sound lice sone other Mass without nrealising it. That's the thing you lead,.. not stealing something, tidokris something that you tlzght was completely original al ring ding that it isn't."
I don't think he nett to worry.
Stephen (-lough 's Mist Miarabilis will be sung at the 10 marring Mass at Westminsterfithe4rul this Sunday. June 10.1€ performance has beeroontscred by The Catholic Herat