Hough's CD is Gramophone's most popular

LONDON Thu Sep 25, 2008 10:41am EDT

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - British pianist Stephen Hough's recording of Saint-Saens piano concertos was named most popular classical CD of the last 30 years on Thursday, but he wasn't expecting a run on the record stores.

"Maybe more people will listen to Saint-Saens after this, I don't know," he said modestly, in an interview with Reuters.

The music magazine Gramophone announced the surprise choice of a Briton's recording on a small label (Hyperion) of music by a lesser-known 19th-century French composer, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, at a ceremony in a posh London hotel.

Other winners from the magazine's annual effort to draw attention to the flagging classical recording scene were British pianist Paul Lewis, record of the year for Beethoven sonatas; American violinist Hilary Hahn named artist of the year and a lifetime achievement award for American conductor Andre Previn.

Hough, beating out the likes of the late German conducting giant Herbert von Karajan in a reader poll conducted jointly with the Times of London may send ripples through music circles, but it won't raise an eyebrow among Hough's many admirers.

This is, after all, the 46-year-old who in 2001 was the first classical musician to be awarded one of the U.S.-based MacArthur Foundation's $500,000 "genius" grants -- which he spent largely to buy a studio to house his three pianos.

In addition to his recording and performing career, he doubles (or triples) as composer, poet, writer and something of an activist on behalf of Roman Catholics who happen to be gay.

Talking to Reuters at a relaxed bistro the night before the awards, he'd just completed writing what might be described as an "extreme" trio -- for piano with piccolo and contrabassoon -- two wind instruments at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum.

The title uses the German for "tears," to avoid inevitable Laurel and Hardy jokes. And oh, in shades of the film classic "On the Beach," he took dual Australian citizenship after 9/11.

Following is an edited transcript:

Q: All most people know about Camille Saint-Saens, if anything, is "Carnival of the Animals." Why the concertos?

A: "One thing that astonished me when I started learning the pieces is that every movement is different. A lot of great composers write the same piece more than once...but in this I think you'll find every movement, they're completely different. So already to me there's a kind of genius in that."

Q: Anything else?

A: "A friend of mine was going through a very bad depression a while ago and he told me whenever he put on this recording his spirits lifted, no matter what time of the day. I think they are exhilarating, in their life-affirming exuberance."

Q: That's nice. Now why is there a toy piano sound in No. 5?

A: "It's a very clever way of putting the hands on the keyboard. They're just tenths (intervals) but they're separated by two octaves. The right hand plays soft and the left hand plays loud and it creates this effect like a toy piano."

Q: You are openly gay, and yet you converted to Roman Catholicism as a teenager. Was this not asking for trouble?

A: "I converted when I was 18 in 1980, I knew I was gay then although I hadn't actually had a relationship with anyone but it seemed to me that the magnetism of the church and the truth that I saw there was more important to me than struggling...I thought I'd give it a go and I actually wanted to become a priest."

Q: But what about the Church's anti-gay teachings?

A: "It's a very Catholic idea that creation is something basically good because if God saw it and made it it's good. It has to be seen that gay people are not just straight people misbehaving, which is the tradition -- that everyone is straight but some people are perverted. The Church itself has realized that's just not true. It accepts now the presence (of homosexuality). It would be hard not to, there are many amongst their own ranks who would vouch for that."

Q: Sounds like a book.

A: "Two weeks ago I signed a contract."

(Stephen Hough's recording "Stephen Hough in Recital" is released on Hyperion Records on March 1, 2009)