Angela Hewitt in Dorking – 23 November

English Suite in A minor, BWV 807
Sonata in D, Op.28 (Pastoral)
Sonata in B minor

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 23 November, 2002
Venue: Dorking Halls, Dorking, Surrey

In 1985, when Angela Hewitt came to prominence through winning a one-off commemorative Bach competition in Toronto, the piano as a Bach instrument was in need of champions against the full flow of the ’authenticity’ movement. The high opinion of Hewitt’s Bach, and that of András Schiff, is linked to a perception that the Bach pianist should mimic the intimacy and discretion of the harpsichord. The piano’s colouristic ability was there not to convey emotion, but to clarify the polyphony. Even in the ’nineties, by which time Hewitt’s Bach recording project for Hyperion had begun, words like ’chaste’ and ’quiet hand’ were used as compliments.

Fifteen years on, fashions in Bach performance, perhaps in all piano music, have changed to something more expressive and spontaneous. Pianists feel free to make Bach their own, where once, in recent decades, only a genuine eccentric like Glenn Gould dared. Perahia, Goode or Anderszewski present Bach as improvisatory, aggressive or openly emotional. Hewitt’s Bach has, however, stayed the same. Returning to the DG recording she made in 1986 as part of her competition prize, her playing seems livelier and certainly fresher. Her Bach today runs the risk of sounding mannered, even dated.

Hewitt though has seen the need to diversify. French music has long formed part of her repertoire and is now being given greater prominence – her touch, her cool irony, and her undoubted skill at bringing out the precise variation of different voices stand her in good stead. Ravel’s Sonatine was well crafted, beautiful in sound, and suitably endowed with Gallic distance.

In the rest of her recital, it has to be said that everything sounded very similar to her Bach style. Beethoven’s ’Pastoral’ showed barely any improvement over her erratic performance in the Wigmore Hall on January 14 this year and had, astonishingly, some of the same wrong notes. Her ability to differentiate details, which characterises her Bach, failed to compensate for the lack of dramatic commitment. This was undoubtedly the least successful piece in the recital.

For a pianist of Hewitt’s provenance, the Liszt B minor sonata was certainly a bold choice, although (as a forthcoming recital by Stephen Hough further evidences), the Dorking Concertgoers Society is privileged to hear pianists trying out new repertoire. In her spoken introduction, Hewitt suggested that the lyrical side of the work had been underestimated. Her performance certainly corrected this – its fugal section was admirably precise in its articulation and each soft passage lovingly contrived – yet, ultimately, Liszt is not to be played as if it were Dresden china. As recent performances by Kissin and Vondracek have shown, the musical content of Liszt is at its strongest when the technical challenge is quelled. In the constant demands of octave passages in particular, Hewitt’s pianism was simply not powerful or heroic enough to tame so gigantic a piece, although the continuity and consistent vision of her performance were commendable in something so removed from what we expect from her.

Hewitt has the luxury of always performing on a Fazioli. Its silky sound and delicate gradations of tone ideally suit a pianist whose aim is to give the certainty, semblance or illusion of control; although, quite frequently, scale passages seemed oddly muddied. It also reinforces the sense in which Hewitt’s playing increasingly represents an idiosyncratic view of the major repertoire.

Hewitt can trade on her excellent reputation to invest in a necessary period of re-invention.It will be interesting to see what eventually emerges, but for the moment this evening gave a fascinating insight into ’work in progress’.

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