Bunte Blätter, Op.99 [selection]
Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann, Op.9
Scherzo in E flat minor, Op.4
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 7 April, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
In his three piano sonatas, all completed by the time he was 20, Brahms flexes his compositional muscles. The Third is a grand affair, structurally ambitious and technically challenging. Angela Hewitt’s performance of this behemoth was compelling, from the lean, imposing first movement to the final, triumphant cadence of the last. In between a sense of struggle was keenly felt, but Hewitt kept pushing the music forward through a mix of upfront tempos and vital phrasing.
The octaves of the first movement, technically straight in at the deep end, were polished and rhythmically incisive. The same could also be said of the scherzo, though here Hewitt caught the music’s stumbling gait through exuberance and slightly restless dance rhythms. The pianist could have sought greater contrast between these and the slower movements, but she chose instead to keep the music moving. The Andante was therefore relatively fast, its return to the theme especially dreamlike. The chorale in the finale, often a point for contemplation and an explicit stylistic reference to Beethoven, was taken rather more urgently, pointing towards the finish rather than pausing to ease the tension.
Placing Brahms’s early triumph in context was a first half glimpsing at early links between the composer and his mentor, Robert Schumann. A selection from the elder composer’s Bunte Blätter was poetically characterized by Hewitt, with tasteful rubato a prominent feature of her performance style. The slower of these Albumblätter were deeply personal and sometimes troubled, the flighty faster-movement figurations moving around like a restless butterfly.
Brahms’s Variations, based on one of the slow Albumblätter, the fourth in the set, makes for a sombre work, written in the wake of Schumann’s first suicide attempt. Hewitt’s Fazioli piano caught some of the darker tones, especially in the octaves of the sixth variation. This and the other faster variations were only occasionally thrown into relief by a pause for reflection, while feelings rose to the surface again in a passionate eleventh variation.
Even Brahms’s juvenilia show a remarkable grasp of technique and form. The early Scherzo, completed in his late teens, received a commanding performance here, with the occasional flash in Hewitt’s eye reflecting the composer’s steely resolve. This was a scherzo in the more modern sense – less light-hearted and more a twisted chromatic dance. Hewitt could afford to be more playful in the trio sections, but the theme was unrelenting all the way through to the big boned coda.
This was an extremely well planned programme, all the way down to the encore – the second of Schumann’s Opus 28 Romances, its graceful and flowing contours balancing the more-angular Brahms sonata.