Angela Hewitt at Royal Festival Hall – Opus 110 & The Art of Fugue

Bach
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV903
Beethoven
Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat, Op.110
Bach
The Art of Fugue – Contrapuncti XI, XII & XIII; Four Canons; Contrapunctus XIV
Chorale Prelude, Vor Deinen Thron tret ich hiermit

Angela Hewitt (piano)


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 May, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Angela Hewitt. Photograph: Bernd EberleWith the austerities of The Art of Fugue uppermost in mind, I’d overlooked just how flamboyant a performer Angela Hewitt can be. For a Bach specialist who can give significance to the tiniest nuance, she might just as well have played the regal opening of the Chromatic Fantasia on full organ. In Bach’s dazzling, extrovert game of dodge-the-tonality, Hewitt pulled on the work’s moorings with any number of teasing hints of arrival in an incandescent display of colour and dynamics. She seemed to direct it as much as play it so that both virtuosities, Bach’s and her own, fed on each other, and, if there is such a thing as informed spontaneity, it was powerfully at work here. It was both a re-imagining of the Baroque at its most extravagant and of J. S. Bach at his timeless best, in which Hewitt danced with tradition – and you were never sure who was leading whom.

For another composer honouring of Bach’s spirit, Hewitt chose Beethoven and his Opus 110. Its union of contrapuntal rigour and highly personal, lyrical freedom suited her particularly well. This was the most satisfying I’ve heard her in Beethoven; the Sonata became a revelatory song of innocence and of experience. The way in which the first movement’s main melody dissolved into effortless, rippling arpeggios to re-emerge subtly altered was musical alchemy of great distinction, every detail of phrase, tempo and timbre extending the music’s reach. Possibly the scherzo could have been ruder, more personal, if only to exaggerate the tumbling hysteria of its trio section. Even so, the magically played coda gave nothing away about the slow movement, in which, with exquisite tact, Hewitt guided the increasingly distracted arioso dolente to seek solace in protective fugues. She gave the contrasting sections a spellbinding sense of narrative, and the repeated chords of G major were bursting with long-sighted anticipation of Beethoven’s magnificent re-taking of the home key. Structurally mobile yet secure, quietly epic and aerated with insight, this was a reading to treasure.

In what otherwise would have been quite a short recital, Hewitt prefaced The Art of Fugue with a bracingly pragmatic introduction. This was the second leg of her easing Bach’s monumental celebration of counterpoint into her repertoire, and it triumphantly disproved her remark that its performance would probably give her, rather than her audience, the more pleasure. There were no grand gestures; the Fazioli piano registered every inflection required of it; the focus of her playing was enhanced by having the score on an iPad (as if they deserved such classy product-placement), ‘turning’ the pages with a pedal. Each of the Fugues or Canons acquired its shading of character, and it seemed the most natural, even desirable, thing to re-examine a Fugue in its upside-down or inside-out version. The smallest articulation of phrase, weight or colour gave the music an incredible luminosity that gathered in spiritual, abstract logic. The fact that ‘Contrapunctus XIV’ stopped in mid-phrase merely seemed to imply that this particular universe would continue to expand into infinite space. A longish silence, then Hewitt played Vor Deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, the Chorale Prelude thought to have been dictated by Bach on his deathbed, the import of which I cannot imagine being lost on anyone. Hewitt communicated the sheer wonderment of this uncompromising beauty in playing of profound and profoundly personal engagement. I think she realised the magnitude of what she had accomplished.


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