Angela Hewitt at Royal Festival Hall – Suites by Bach & Handel, Variations by Beethoven & Brahms

Partita in B flat, BWV825
Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op.35 (Eroica)
Suite in F minor, HWV433
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 29 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Angela Hewitt. ©Peter HundertAngela Hewitt chose a huge programme – two of the piano repertoire’s really big sets of Variations plus two substantial Baroque keyboard suites – to remind us of her rare, intimate gift of making you think she is playing just for you. Her Bach, especially, has a directness of communication and absence of austerity that made the music leap off the page. It was a sort of roll-call of all those elements that distinguish this artist’s playing – integrity of phrasing, the liquid ebb and flow of rhythm, the cleverly judged teasing of rubato, the subdued effervescence and powerful moments of passion, and, above all, her delight in music that delights in itself. In the ‘Sarabande’, just to hear the eloquence and poise of the highly decorated repeats or the controlled dynamism of the ‘Gigue’ confirms once again what a great Bach player she is.

Compared to the Bach, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Variations (based on a tune from his ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus that he also used for the finale of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony – hence the title) exerts a tighter control on the performer, sometimes to eccentric effect. The three loud repeated notes that are such a startling component of the Theme are rather intractable as far as the Variation format is concerned, and some pianists play up this aspect – listen to Richter, for example. Not surprisingly, Hewitt played down their potential for unruliness, and her performance as a whole vividly embraced the sometimes rather grotesque fantasy of Beethoven’s piano-writing at its most exploratory and explosive. I’ve probably heard more expansive performances, especially in the more extrovert opening Variations, but the mysterious, abstracted approach to the Fugue was masterly, which can be an ear-bashing blast of a hectoring, contrapuntal peroration. Hewitt didn’t stint on the volume but she put clarity first. It paid off in terms of her finely intelligent reading, at the same time as making me a bit thoughtful about her preferred Fazioli piano. People have rhapsodised about its evenness of sound and discreetly powerful bass. With its bright, forward tone, it was fine for the Bach, but in the Beethoven I developed a slight craving for a bit more resonance and brassy brightness.

Her piano’s collected sound suited the Handel very well, Hewitt relishing the music’s generally heftier textures. It was also interesting to hear, especially in comparison to the Bach, how Handel’s keyboard music sounds here more generically baroque. In the Brahms, Hewitt slipped with ease from the opening Handel Air into Brahms already in Academic Festival Overture mode. In general, she was sparing in her response to the music’s monumental possibilities, saving herself for a majestic Variation IX, the ravishing XIII and her stupendous playing of the concluding Fugue.

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