Safe and Sound; Stephen Hough Recalls How He Nearly Lost His Latest Work - and His Life - in a Car Crash. Christopher Morley Reports

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Byline: Christopher Morley

Pianist Stephen Hough uses the adjective mirabilis (wonderful) in the title of the Mass, Oremus Missa Mirabilis, he has composed, which is to have its debut at Lichfield Cathedral on Sunday.

But given the extraordinary back story to its completion, it would not have been inappropriate to have dubbed it miraculous.

"Why Mirabilis? Purely personal," he explains. "I gathered my year's worth of sketches for this Mass together in September 2006 and wrote three of the movements in three days.

"The following day I had a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway at 80 mph. I stepped out of the one untouched door in my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and my body intact.

"I wrote part of the Agnus Dei in St Mary's Hospital, waiting for four hours for a brain scan.

"I was conscious, while I was somersaulting like a screeching metallic acrobat on the M1, of feeling regret that I would never get to hear this piece.

"Someone had other ideas." Stephen, the Royal Philharmonic Society's Instrumentalist of the Year, obviously has special affinities with the wonderful building where he will be in residence this weekend.

Last summer he gave a memorable performance with the CBSO in the cathedral, and he wrote vividly on his blog about the changing landscapes on the drive between Birmingham and Lichfield.

"I think there's always something special about performing in a space with as much resonance (in every sense of the word) as Lichfield Cathedral," he says.

"Every performance has to be a partnership with the building. This particular weekend is special because I'm performing and being 'performed' ... in the same glorious space."

He will be giving a recital on Saturday evening, and hearing on Sunday morning the premiere in a liturgical setting of a Mass he has composed. One thinks back to Liszt, virtuoso pianist, composer, and, like Hough, a deeply religious thinker.

"Instead of setting the words simply in a descriptive way, I wanted to explore aspects of the psychology which underlies the whole nature of belief and doubt," Stephen explains. "But I, like most Catholics, have said these words quickly, without thinking fully of the depth (or daring) of what is being expressed.

"And what about those who have ceased to believe and yet still rattle off blithely the bold print in the Missal? "In parts of my Mass the music is deliberately and sentimentally intimate - as if two people are sharing a drink in a Parisian caf, with a whiff of Poulenc perhaps in the harmonies, or maybe even the sound of a distant 1950s pop tune coming from a neighbouring caf's jukebox."

Obviously being a man of faith is important to Stephen. Does he ever experience conflicts of conscience arising out of the sometimes cynical and expedient schemings of the musical world? "I don't think there is a profession without such machinations - and perhaps the Church is the worst of all.

"As a musician my daily bread and butter is some of the greatest art ever created, so there's an antidote to cynicism at hand in every moment. I quite like the mess of the world, and there is perhaps a danger in hoping for things to be too neat and tidy. …