Angela Hewitt at Royal Festival Hall – Wilhelm Kempff transcriptions, Beethoven Opus 101, J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue

Bach, arr. Wilhelm Kempff
Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland‘, BWV659; Flute Sonata in G minor, BWV1031 – Siciliano; Cantata ‘Wir danken dir, Gott’, BWV29 – Sinfonia
Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101
The Art of Fugue – Contrapuncti I-X

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 2 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Angela Hewitt. ©Peter HundertThere was only one work in Angela Hewitt’s recital, the Beethoven, which belongs exclusively to the piano – the J. S. Bach was all filtered through the piano from other sources.

Wilhelm Kempff, one of the music-world’s anchor figures for much of the twentieth-century, was among the great keepers of German culture, and it showed in his three Bach transcriptions that Hewitt played first. Their process of annexation and reinvention may hark back nostalgically to the once-unassailable domination of the piano, but it’s carried off in such style and with such seriousness. Hewitt, with her characteristic blend of reverence, fascination and spontaneity, coaxed the ‘Nun komm’ Chorale Prelude out of the organ loft with great tact, the tune itself emerging with subliminal stealth, and the spread chords, crescendos and sustaining powers reminded us – if needed – that the piano is an instrument of illusion. She honoured the romantic spirit of the ‘Siciliano’ with some wonderfully veiled, withdrawn playing and reaped magnificent rewards in the huge textures of the ‘Sinfonia’.

In the first movement of the Beethoven, Hewitt played down its potential for eccentric contrast and worked with a consistently reduced level of dynamics. The effect was pleasingly impressionistic, with the equivocal opening kernel of the main theme barely nudging its returns into our consciousness. This is music that easily resists being pushed into the limelight, which suits the default inwardness of Hewitt’s style, but the mood seeped into the robust second movement march, with results comfortable rather than explosive and which made the trio sound more than usually abstract. Apart from some blurred detail in the opening material, Hewitt skilfully steered the finale’s fugue away from being too hectoring and gave the moment of reprise a precisely judged sense of weight and release. Perhaps the rapt attention she gave the first movement rather skewed the perspective of the finale, but the way in which she signed off the coda while the music is still toying with ideas of further development was beautifully managed.

Miles away from the extravagances of the transcriptions were the first ten Contrapuncti of The Art of Fugue, which Hewitt has only now started to add to her comprehensive Bach repertoire. She’s said that this musical Mount Everest makes the Goldberg Variations seem like child’s play, and the music’s uncompromising concept is very difficult for a performer to communicate. Hewitt’s deference, though, was not expressed in a performance of grandstanding monumentalism. Rather, she let the layers and level expand and accumulate through a pliant and unwavering clarity of line allied to her unerring sense of rubato and of tension applied and released. The resources of the Fazioli piano allowed her to adjust the registration of each fugal voice and add hints of sweetness, and her playing had a degree of engagement and meditative rigour that kept the audience on the edge of its collective seat. Just occasionally, she made an involuntary flourish that gave you an idea of the level of expression she was reaching for, and there was a moment, in VIII, where she imbued the repeated note figure with an incredible intensity.

A pianist used to performing Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier from memory, Hewitt had the score on an iPad. Does this signal an end to the noble calling of the page-turner? Her encore, Kempff’s transcription of Gluck’s ‘Orpheus’s Lament and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Orfeo ed Euridice, held our hand as we came down the mountain.

Angela Hewitt completes The Art of Fugue on 7 May next year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content