Pièces de clavecin [selection]
Variations on a Theme by Rameau
Le tombeau de Couperin
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Reviewed by: Francesco Burns
Reviewed: 13 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Angela Hewitt returned to Wigmore Hall for a programme of French Baroque music and its influence on 20th-century French composers.
First was a selection from Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin, beginning with the tiny minuet ‘Le Lardon’ (used by Dukas for his Variations). Hewitt revels in this repertoire with absolute conviction, and while she took such pleasure in each miniature, her readings were authoritative. Whether or not the piano is suitable in this repertoire, Hewitt doesn’t forget what sonority this music was conceived for. Her crisp articulation in ‘Fanfarinette’ was amusingly flirtatious, followed by ‘Les Triolets’ which was melancholy without being sentimental. She showed immaculate restraint in the character-study of two American Indians ‘Les sauvages’, and demonstrated her ability to sing long lines in ‘L’enharmonique’. The set closed with a reading of ‘L’egiptienne’, at once rustic yet elevated and de rigueur.
Next came Paul Dukas’s enigmatic Variations on a Theme by Rameau. A pianist of considerable technical command is needed just to get around the purely physical obstacles in this piece, but to achieve unity throughout is a bigger task. Hewitt played the Theme in a more pronounced, extrovert manner than at the beginning of the recital. This small difference was an example of Hewitt’s admirable sensitivity to performance traditions. She made it clear that although ‘Le Lardon’ is originally Baroque, one can’t ignore that Dukas re-penned it in the aftermath of the heyday of Liszt. Whenever the Theme re-appeared, Hewitt played it strictly ‘in tempo’ as if looking back to Rameau with an appreciative nod, which provided refreshing juxtaposition with Dukas’s bizarre harmonisation. The César Franck-like ‘Variation 11’ and the ‘Interlude’ were played with a real sense of darkness-to-light.
To Couperin for the second half, Hewitt began with the eight pieces from Book II of Pièces de clavecin, all of which are in B flat. It would be easy for pianists to include such works as potpourri, but Hewitt treated each of them as distinct curiosities. Her sense of line in ‘Les Langeurs-Tendres’ was apparent, using almost no pedal and relying on finger legato alone. Most surprising was the vast palette of colour she had at her disposal throughout ‘Les Barricades Mistérieuses’, ending with a truly buzzing depiction of the irritating gnat in ‘Le Moucheron’. What a highly sensitive ear Hewitt has, constantly analysing and adjusting her sound. The sonority of the clavichord and harpsichord seem well-known to her for she employed infinite gradations of touch, shading and articulation to suggest the application of different ‘stops’ typical to those instruments. Hewitt plays on Fazioli pianos whenever possible, claiming they allow her greater control over the sound she wishes to make.
Coming forward two-hundred years, Hewitt closed with Ravel’s homage to friends lost in World War One. In ‘Prelude’ she integrated each cell-like phrase into sensitively shaped longer arcs and kept the perpetual motion moving with unwavering tempo. ‘Fugue’ was effortlessly despatched. Hewitt’s contrapuntal technique is so refined that one gets the sense that each voice is brought to the foreground and subdued as if being controlled by faders on a mixing desk. Then came a serenely elegant ‘Forlane’, Hewitt found the essence of the simplicity of each phrase; her tempo was strict and by not lingering she let the spicy harmony speak for itself. ‘Riguadon’ was joyous, rounded off with a smile as she struck the last chord. ‘Menuet’ was an innocently simple longing for the past; the music-box winding-down glittered and the final haze of trills blurred just the right amount. The sense of tension throughout ‘Toccata’ was arresting, Hewitt building the triumphant ending on a vast scale.
Debussy’s Clair de lune (from Suite bergamasque) was offered as encore and given with an elastic rubato. All in all, this was an evening of formidable musicianship.