Bartók Masters celebrates musicians, engineers and music professionals who use the dCS Bartók in their workflow. In our latest film, we meet with classical pianist Nicolas Hodges to discuss his creative process, his relationship with the music he records and performs and his interest in high-performance audioTags: Bartók, Masters, Culture,
Nicolas Hodges is a classical pianist renowned for his exceptional musicianship and diverse repertoire. In a career spanning four decades, he has recorded over 70 CDs and performed on stages around the world as both a soloist and chamber musician.
Over the years, he has played and taught a huge range of pieces dating from the Classical era to the present and worked with a wealth of composers to interpret and premiere new works. Over a dozen composers have dedicated pieces to him – from Elliott Carter to James Clarke and Thomas Adès – and he has developed close partnerships with luminaries including Rebecca Saunders and Sir Harrison Birtwistle.
He also teaches emerging musicians in his role as a professor at Musikhochschule Stuttgart and has performed with numerous orchestras, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Sydney Symphony, via the London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, LA Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and many more.
Nicolas was born into a musical family and began playing piano and composing at a young age. His love of challenging and unusual music, coupled with his extraordinary technical skill and musicianship, has led to a thrilling career and global acclaim.
He has a keen interest in high-end audio – an enthusiasm that began when he was introduced to professional grade equipment as a child via his father, who trained as a sound engineer at the BBC.
As part of our Bartók Masters series, we caught up with Nicolas during a recent trip to the UK to hear more about his work, his relationships with the pieces he performs, how he listens and what he looks for when choosing audio components.
Nicolas visited the dCS factory in Cambridge, England in late 2023 and performed for us at local arts venue Stapleford Granary. You can watch the Bartók Masters film and read additional excerpts from our conversations with him below.
You discovered classical music as a child, through your parents. Can you tell us about some of your earliest introductions to classical music – what kind of pieces you were introduced to, your memories of seeing your mother perform as a singer, or your father as a musician, and how those moments informed or inspired you growing up?
I remember very clearly seeing my mother performing in public, and me as a child sitting there not quite understanding what was going on, and all these adults around me being very serious. It was quite a strange feeling in a way, because this whole thing of the performance situation that you’re in as a musician and the audience situation when you sit and listen, as a child I was already learning all that…. The kind of music we’re talking about here is the Verdi Requiem, so a big dramatic piece with orchestra and choirs and solo singers like my Mum at the front. It was dramatic, powerful music which I as a child totally got into.
Other things I remember my mother singing were Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and also lots of Lieder, so Schubert and Schumann and others in the 19th century German lieder tradition. I would accompany my mother singing at home and that was again an experience that I knew even as a child was unusual and which was really formative. It was just as formative as being taught how to hold a spoon, you know, or ride a bike – how to play the piano and accompany a singer was in that category for me.
You have a strong interest in contemporary music - in our Masters film, you discuss how you were drawn to the “unusual, challenging” things that were happening in music in the latter part of the 20th century. Do you remember any pieces in particular that stood out to you growing up?
I remember very clearly a music lesson when I was about 11 or 12 where we were played Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen, which is a piece for tape made of artificial sounds.
The sounds in it are a mixture of things: some of them sound like they could be musical instruments, some of them sound like they could be the product of alien artwork somehow.
Kontakte, or ‘Contacts' in English, is the title, because he wanted to make contact between all these different sounds: the instrumental, the almost instrumental and the fully synthesised.
The piece just sounds fantastic. As a child, I had no idea what [Stockhausen] was doing and why but after laughing for a minute or two, I was like ‘oh, wow, this is really good’. This lesson, I remember the room it was in, I remember the whole situation now like it was yesterday. I remember going back home and telling my dad about it, and he produced an LP of another piece by Stockhausen because he had this amazing collection of weird and wonderful stuff ... which really surprised me.
You also talked to us about your creative process and the relationship you have with the pieces you record and perform, but of course this is just one part of your work – the other being your role as a professor at The Musikhochschule in Stuttgart. How does your teaching practice relate to or inform your work as a musician?
I teach at the conservatory in Stuttgart, which is a big place with hundreds and hundreds of students, and I teach a full class of piano in all repertoire.
It's a very important activity for me: every time you perform a piece or even work with a piece, you're thinking about it in a way which is quite similar to teaching in a certain sense, because you have to understand the elements that come together in the piece, the building blocks, so to speak. You have to understand the style of the piece and what unwritten rules there are involved and you have to present that to the audience. First you have to present it to yourself … and then as you find the parts of the piece, you have to discuss with yourself what's important or what’s less important, or in what ways the things are important, and once you decide it for yourself, you can present that to the audience. You can say with your instrument ‘this is the theme, this is another theme, this is a development, this is a variation, this is dramatic and this is the end’. Saying all those things is not just a matter of playing the notes, it's also a matter of understanding the form and presenting it, in a way.
When you are teaching, you're doing exactly the same thing – you're doing it explicitly with words or sometimes explicitly with playing for the student but it's a related thing – so for me, at least, it came out very naturally from my practice as a performer.
My teaching is such a joyful situation really for me, because I can work with the pieces and with these young musicians, some of whom are already very experienced, day in, day out.
I’m learning a lot … really, it’s an exploration of what one already knows. I have to refresh and understand anew and try different things with myself and with the piece and with the students.
You are someone who listens to music throughout the day, every day, and over the years you’ve developed a keen interest in high-quality audio equipment. What prompted you to explore the world of high-performance hi-fi and headfi?
I mentioned that my Dad is an amateur musician, but he was actually a BBC studio manager as one of his first jobs, so in the late 1960s, early 70s he was at Maida Vale Studios or at Bush House [in London], getting the microphones out and recording things. That was something I knew as a child because I saw the stuff around in the house: there was hi-fi that was a little bit more dramatic looking than what my friends had, and there were microphones in the house and, you know, there was the gubbins of someone who does sound recording. I think that, along with my innate nerdiness, made me interested in how good [audio] can get.
You own headphones and speakers. Can you talk us through your audio set up at home and how you listen day to day?
I have a Roon server like most of the world nowadays with all my music on it and I can stream to anywhere in the house, which is great. I've got speakers in several different rooms, little ones and big ones, and I have been for quite a long time, quite devoted to headphones.
It's partly the concentration that you get [when using headphones]: it takes an effort, it's a ritual, a certain kind of ritual to plug the things in, to get them out of their case and plug them in and sit somewhere with them and not be able to walk around.
My serious headphone set up means somewhere where I'm sitting on my own and not disturbing people and people [are] not disturbing me, and I can listen really, really carefully with a Bartók and good headphones, and it's really a very different experience from listening with loudspeakers. With loudspeakers, you get a different sense of space, and of physical impact – and there are other differences too. I think in the long run you need both – you never see a recording studio relying only on headphones, [or] totally without speakers for monitoring!
In our Masters film, you discussed some of the things you look for when selecting audio equipment – and what you value in terms of sound quality. How do think being a professional musician affects how you listen and your experience of audio equipment?
As a musician, I have a unique situation when it comes to audio equipment because I make CDs, and when I put on one of my own CDs, I know if it sounds like it should – no one can tell me that it sounded different. That's a unique situation. It's also a little bit of a problematic situation because it means that if I've got equipment at home which makes things sound wrong, it winds me up completely, as you can imagine.
I have used my own CDs to choose certain pieces of equipment and to calibrate, so to speak, what's there in the sitting room and in my working room. I also have a Steinway concert grand in my house, which reminds me daily what a piano actually sounds like - calibrating my hearing, so to speak.
You listen to a lot of digital recordings but you have also been exploring purchasing a new turntable. What prompted you to start exploring vinyl again, and how does that fit into your listening setup?
I’ve been a digital devotee for a long time. I have a lot of CDs, a whole storage unit full of them. Some were bought in the 80s – so going back to the beginning and the first CDs of important pianists like Pollini, Argerich, Richter, Brendel. Most are on my Roon server so I can stream to various rooms around the house.
There’s this convenience that we all know with digital music and streaming, but there is a repertoire problem, which is that there are some recordings, performances and compositions which are not on CD. The vinyl that I have is almost entirely recordings that are not [available] anywhere else, so I have them on vinyl because I have to have them. There are also some recordings which just sound really bad on CD and finding that there are LPs of them, that you can essentially get the original analogue recording on an LP, opens up a whole new area.
I’ve been listening to turntables to replace the one my parents gave me on my 18th birthday. I‘ve gravitated towards Clearaudio, a well-established German company. They‘re wonderful. The one I’m particularly looking at is a great piece of engineering, it’s beautiful and it’s in a style that goes well with the other gear that I have, including the dCS. I would still always opt for high-resolution digital, but this turntable has made me realise that vinyl can be really good, so maybe I’ll make that leap [and purchase one] sooner rather than later!
When you listen to music, either for learning and analysis or when preparing recordings, what kind of things are you listening out for? What are you paying close attention to? And what do you need to be able to hear clearly through your equipment?
[It’s] a lot of different things. Sometimes, I listen to recordings to hear the hall, sometimes I listen to recordings to hear the piano, the instrument, and sometimes the performer and sometimes the music, which I might not know, and very often the interpretation. I'm listening very, very carefully to how tempo is controlled by the performer or the harmony or the relationship between the melody and the bass. With classical, you can have the same piece of music with the same notes but have 30 recordings of it, because of all these variables. Hearing all that and understanding the decisions that the performer has made is what I'm doing when I'm listening to classical recordings most of the time – just as with jazz, which I listen to almost as much.
Being a classical musician is a hugely demanding profession and there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes prior to recording a piece or performing live on stage. What does it take to carve out a career in this field?
[Being a classical musician] is the best job in the world in a certain way, and I'm hugely grateful for the support I’ve had and the luck I've had, but at the same time, it's really, really hard work.
When you're on stage and there's applause and it goes well, it feels good and it’s amazingly rewarding … but I'm only on stage a little tiny part of my life, and the rest of the time I'm practicing or traveling or teaching. And there’s a certain weight to that. It’s not glamorous, it’s not comfortable and you have to practice a lot.
When you go to a concert, and you see a performance which you enjoy you don't necessarily think about – you don't necessarily want to think about – the huge amount of work that went into it. That effort shouldn’t be written on my forehead … but at the same time, part of me wants the audience to know how much work went into it. Maybe knowing that does change how you hear things or see things in music, if you realise that it doesn’t just happen effortlessly, by itself!
Learn more about the dCS Bartók APEX here.