Drum roll, please …

It gives me great pleasure to announce that – in fact, it arrived back in March – the first song is already with me!

So, huge thanks to Stephen Hough for opening this project with a wistful-but-warm Fairest Isle.

I’ve been a fan of Stephen’s artistry as a pianist for many years, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware until recently that he’s also a prolific composer.

Until I came across ‘Hallowed’.

This piece, for mixed choir, was premiered by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers in March 2018. 

I was immediately drawn to his harmonic language, with its rich textures and wide-set chords, using the full ranges of the voices.

The various texts – from the Old Testament, through Chinese and Navajo poetry, culminate in a moving setting of the Lord’s Prayer.
I can imagine each of us finding our own particular route into Stephen’s compositional output, so do explore for yourself on his website 

My next treat to myself is his ‘Dream Album’, which I’ve just ordered. 

Needless to say, I was delighted when Stephen said he would write me a song. And, given that I’ve asked the composers to aim for a Summer 2021 submission, I was amazed when he emailed in February to say that his piece was at the printers!

It’s incredibly exciting to receive a new piece of music, as yet unperformed. And when I began this commissioning process, I didn’t really know what sort of music I would get.

As I said to the composers:

I am looking for songs that take Purcell as their starting point. I want you to feel free to write your music – I am not asking composers whose work I greatly admire to do a keyboard harmony exercise! – so that could mean anything from keeping the melody and/or bass line, or elements of the harmony or… I don’t know really. My imagination doesn’t work like yours…! I think Britten did a great job of bringing Purcell into the 20th century with his realisations, and I suppose we could think of this as taking it a step further for the 21st Century?

Stephen’s setting of ‘Fairest Isle’ is fresh and thoughtful; it’s use of the keyboard feels to me as though it opens up the song, and its harmony feels generous.

Joseph and I haven’t yet been able to play the song together, but I can’t wait to start absorbing it. It has already been interesting for me to shake myself out of my ‘usual’ way of thinking about these words and this melody.

I realise as I write, that I’m not very good at articulating my responses to music, so I won’t dwell on that sort of thing!

So. Stephen Hough. Pianist, composer… and, of course, author. I’m not going to present a critique of his excellent book ‘Rough Ideas’, but will share with you a sentence from the end of a musing that I found particularly comforting, as someone who recently had a first experience of the extreme stress of performance anxiety:

I don’t think any musician, unlike a trapeze artist, strikes the wires of a piano or draws the bow across a violin’s strings primarily for the kick of an adrenalin fix but if ‘ecstasy’ means to stand outside ourselves, then what better ambition can there be as we stand in the wings of a concert hall than to leave self-obsession behind and take the audience on a journey across the high wire of Beethoven or the flying trapeze of Liszt.

Stephen Hough

So, I will leave the obsessive nature of this project for a few days, and allow you to have a gentle Stephen Hough Obsession.

By the way, his recent Brahms recording is really rather exquisite…

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