Stephen Hough performs with ASO and discusses recordings of Chopin's Nocturnes

Pianist Stephen Hough performs virtually with the ASO on Feb. 4. (Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Pianist Stephen Hough, who recently turned 60, told an interviewer, “People are most creative in their 60s and 70s, so bring it on.” A notorious setter of high bars, the accomplished instrumentalist, composer, author, painter and scholar continues to fill his life with art and music. He performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra last month, but no live audience was present due to surges in COVID-19 cases. The filmed concert will be released on the ASO’s website this Friday, Feb. 4. Hough also recently released a new recording of the complete Nocturnes of Frederic Chopin, made in London during the lockdown. He joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the great composer of the Romantic period and Hough’s concert performance that fans of the ASO will soon enjoy.

Interview highlights:

How Chopin’s music reflected his love of opera singers:

“That’s what Chopin loved, you know. He may have liked concerts and piano music and violins, whatever, but he really loved singers. So his great joy was to be at the opera house and to hear these great bel canto operas — Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini — that whole period, and I think you hear this in all of his music,” said Hough. “To me, particularly in the Nocturnes, there’s something of the coloratura aria about all of these, where he decorates things with these wonderful filigree passages. [It] sounds to me just like the most wonderful diva of his time showing off on stage in a wonderful costume.”

Multidisciplinary takes on Nocturne in D Flat, Op. 27, No. 2:

“Maybe we should find a different perfume for each of the Nocturnes. We could go through the whole range of Guerlain and find the exact scent that would match,” mused Hough. “I think if it were that, this one would probably be one of the headier, richer ones — maybe the Après L’Ondee, which is the one with a lot of violets. Because as you say, this is one of the most exquisite and one of the most popular ones.”

“It’s not just that he wrote beautiful tunes, but he was a great craftsman. He was a great composer [and] had a real technical sense of proportion, like the greatest of architects,” Hough said. “Actually, on my recording, I’ve incorporated, I think in three different places, decorations that Chopin wrote himself in students’ copies that are not in the original printed score, but they were ideas that he came up with later, and I think they’re really quite exquisite. They show him as the improviser that in a sense his pieces were never really finished.”

On Saint-Saëns, the other great Romantic composer of Hough’s ASO program:

“He writes beautifully for the piano. The actual use of harmony and of texture is always so refined and beautiful, and he makes such a lot of color out of very diatonic harmonies. I mean, diatonic without chromaticism, without harmony, that’s very rich. It’s very plain, in a way; it’s very meat and potatoes. But you get the most wonderful steak and the most delicious potatoes from Saint-Saëns.”

“I was just listening to his two piano trios the other day. Page after page, there are no sharps and flats; it’s just all in the key. I mean, one of them in E minor and the other one in F major. But within that very restricted harmonic palette, he creates such color and variety,” said Hough.

Stephen Hough played Saint-Saëns with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a virtual concert to be released on Feb. 4 through the ASO website. More information and tickets to view this performance are available at