Angela Hewitt at the Wigmore Hall – 28th May

Photograph of Angela Hewitt (© Cramer/Marder Artists)

English Suite in G minor, BWV808
6th Ordre (Livres de clavecin, Book 2)
Gaspard de la nuit
Le Tombeau de Couperin

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 28 May, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Angela Hewitt has chosen the right moment to expand her repertoire. Her trademark Bach has become so synoptic as to be predictable, and there is ever more curiosity as to how her virtues of detachment, cool authority and understated attention to detail will transfer to other composers. On the evidence of this evening, Bach has become the least interesting facet of her playing.

Ravel requires precision and lucidity; the Fazioli piano that Hewitt chooses to play an ideal vehicle to deliver the transparent textures without which his music becomes incomprehensible. In Gaspard, she made light of the technical difficulties; I have never heard so clear and comprehensible a performance of ‘Ondine’ with its fluid but controlled shimmer, and its certainty of direction. An instant justification, then, for Hewitt to have leapfrogged the nineteenth-century. Neither ‘Le Gibet’ nor ‘Scarbo’ were quite so successful – Hewitt’s playing can be so carefully calculated, so intellectualised, for Ravel’s depiction of foreboding and horror to be lost. Here, too, the warm tone of the Fazioli was conspicuous more for sheer beauty of sound than in aiding the performer to suggest unease.

The Couperin pieces after the interval was an excellent showcase for Hewitt’s virtue of Apollonian repose. She performed with the definition and restraint of, to name a contemporary, a Chardin portrait, but without any lack of perkiness (‘Les Moissonneurs’) or delicacy (‘Les Gazouillement’). Only in ‘Le Moucheron’ did the silkiness of the Fazioli make the music seem too neat and lacking in edge. There is no doubt that the magical tenderness of ‘Les Baricades Misterieuses’ was the most successful of the set; the sole moment when this very French, ornamented and studied music transcended its stylistic limits.

I am not sure if there was anything to learn about the Tombeau from hearing it after Couperin himself. The Ravel appeared so much more complex and profound that it was more remarkable as an essay in modernity than as homage. Again, Hewitt was fastidious, carefully thought out in execution, and always intellectually interesting. The cycle was not completely clean – the ‘Rigaudon’ was untidy at the outset and nervy in the ‘Musette’, but there were excellent moments both of virtuosity (notably at the end of the ‘Toccata’) and of intimacy (most especially in the perfectly judged harmonies in the ‘Forlane’). Hewitt’s Ravel is bright more than mystical, an exposition more than an exploration, and a welcome addition to the varied interpretations of this most difficult composer.

As for the Bach with which the programme began, Hewitt trod a fine line between calm dignity and exactness, and too metronomic evenness and frigidity. At times, as in the ‘Gavotte’ pair, there were perfect moments of repose or an exemplary judgement of pace, as in the ‘Courante’. Come the ‘Gigue’ that concludes the suite, I looked for a little more engagement for what is, after all, early Bach.

Angela Hewitt has an aloof platform manner; she can, like Evgeny Kissin whom I heard the next day, be a pianist to admire more than to love. All credit to her, then, for writing her own illuminating notes for the Ravel pieces, especially since their detailed performance directions could alert listeners to potential flaws in her playing. Hewitt alludes herself to Cortot, yet, in the tradition of French pianism, it is Marcelle Meyer who comes to mind as her distinguished predecessor. It is compliment enough to say that Hewitt does not suffer in the comparison.

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