Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall – Angela Hewitt plays Beethoven

Siegfried Idyll
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Kuolema, Op.44 – II: Scene with Cranes
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Britten Sinfonia
Thomas Gould (violin & director)
Angela Hewitt (piano & director)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 16 January, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The quality of the Britten Sinfonia’s playing never disappoints. After its trio of adventurous concerts around its twentieth-birthday towards the end of 2012, the Barbican Centre’s new Associate Ensemble touched home base with this luxurious, more conventional programme, which opened with a particularly luminous performance of Siegfried Idyll, in which elements of scale, balance and restraint came together to compelling effect. With leader Thomas Gould discreetly signalling entries and details of emphasis, the music gathered in impact almost by stealth, the strings’ magically played opening substantiated by the beauty of the woodwinds’ later entry. The clarity of sound was exemplary, with the 30-or-so players responding to each other with the immediacy of a string quartet; the power of Wagner’s familiar themes may have been kept under wraps but they lacked nothing in terms of expectancy.

Angela Hewitt. ©Peter HundertAmong many things Angela Hewitt made clear in her direction and playing of these pair of Beethoven piano concertos was the huge stylistic difference between the two. She played the B flat with a keen realisation of its debt to Mozart and of its not fully formed voice that made you wish again it was officially renumbered No.1 (which it really is), and she brought out with considerable brilliance the tension between Beethoven’s burgeoning style and the one he was paying homage to. Most of the classical piano concertos I’ve seen directed by the soloist – Perahia and, more recently, Andsnes – have been less-so in terms of assertion, a few pertinent and lordly waves of a shapely hand to sculpt a phrase or clinch an entry. Hewitt, though, while not micro-managing, is really active, almost to the point where you wouldn’t be surprised if she used a baton, and, of course, raising the point that it might have been easier with a conductor or to leave it to the abundantly effective Gould, particularly in Concerto No.4.

The Second Concerto showed off Hewitt’s infectiously gracious and rhythmic style and fluidly articulate phrasing, perhaps a bit short on rhetorical brio but with a defiantly big, robust cadenza, the shape of things to come. You’d never describe Hewitt’s approach as boisterous – which the finale is – but her natural vivacity had a sparky rapport with the orchestra, and the music, with fewer gaps for busy direction, bustled energetically to a brilliant conclusion. I liked the way Hewitt arpeggiated the opening chord of the Fourth Concerto, as though to flag up that despite a big orchestral exposition coming up (beautifully played) this is a concerto not a symphony. The first movement had terrific cohesion, and Hewitt opened out with some impeccably managed romantic bravura, and both soloist and orchestra were beyond eloquent in the brief, powerful Andante, its still, small-voice message coming across with impressive strength.

Before the G major Concerto, as if to show off their sure grasp of different styles, the members of Britten Sinfonia played Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes from Kuolema (another piece is the well-known Valse triste), incidental music to a play (which translates as Death) by his brother-in-law. Its hauntingly onomatopoeic crane-calls and attenuated violin and cello solos evoked the northern landscape with impressionistic accuracy.

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