Piano Day at the Wigmore Hall

Photograph of Sequeira Costa

Toccata in D, BWV 912
Toccata in G minor, BWV 915
Bach, transcribed Wilhelm Kempff
Sinfonia in D
Siciliano in G minor (Flute Sonata in E flat)
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Bach, trans. Lord Berners
In dulci jubilo, BWV 729
Bach, trans. Herbert Howells
O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sunde gross
Bach, trans. Eugen D’Albert
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathetique)
Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op27/1
Scherzo in B flat minor, Op.31
Vianna da Motta
Cenas portuguesas, Op.9
Iberia – Eritana, El Puerto, Triana

Sequeira Costa (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 30 December, 2001
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Thus the year ends with two piano recitals in the same hall on the same day. They could not have been more different, spanning the entire range and history of traditional piano repertoire in the space of a few hours.

Sequeira Costa has the most modest and unassuming of stage personae. He almost shuffles on and off. His virtuosity is almost apologetic. His teacher, Vianna da Motta, was a pupil of Liszt; a deep-rooted nineteenth century approach informs Costa’s playing. He always aims, it seems, to emphasise the syrupy richness of the piano’s sound; Albeniz and the immediate encore, a Chopin Etude (Op.25/1), had more in common, in sonority and impressionistic warmth, than they had differences. Costa’s pianism is a wash of colour. He is in the Indian summer of his career. His recitals are a relative rarity.

Angela Hewitt is self-possessed to a fault. In her carriage as in her playing she has the grace and control of the ballet dancer she used to be. Even in a field including Perahia, Gavrilov and Schiff, she is widely regarded as the finest Bach pianist in the world today. Indeed, her Bach is often enchanted and always absolutely confident – imperiously so. Every effect of her pianism is judged with pin-sharp accuracy. She is at the height of her powers, and her Bach seems omnipresent in London.

Even the two pianos were different for these recitals.Costa’s Steinway held no surprises, and emphasised his connection to the piano tradition. Hewitt was using a Fazioli, a modern Venetian make of piano she has extensively commended in interviews, designed “from the ground up” by its eponymous manufacturer. Few are made each year; their action has a velvety softness and their sound a ringing sweetness that seems typical of Italian design generally.Fazioli’s also possess a precision and predictability of touch that make them especially easy to control – ideal for polyphonic music. Their sound is also flattering to the performer – as if Hewitt needed any further advantages.

Or perhaps she did. This was, after all, a programme largely of transcriptions, a sort of having-your-cake-and-eating it programme – Bach and yet not Bach, and certainly something requiring a range of imitation vocal and orchestral effects; a different shop window for Hewitt, an oblique commentary on several generations of musical history expressed through Bach. It was triumphantly successful.

For Costa the piano is an instrument of integration and synthesis. It aims towards seduction and charm. For Hewitt, at least in Bach, analysis and separation are all – what was most remarkable about these transcriptions was not simply the clarity with which each part could be heard, but the distinctive character with which each was presented. Costa’s playing can make music seem over-comfortable, even ingratiating; Hewitt’s inspires cool admiration at the expense of love. In the case of Wilhelm Kempff’s sympathetic transcriptions, however, the piano writing had enough innate warmth not to need special pleading. Hewitt’s separation of ’flute’ and keyboard textures in the ’Siciliano’, or chorus, brass and strings in Wachet Auf… was utterly magical.

Wachet Auf… was perhaps the most completely successful of all the pieces, but each revealed different aspects of Hewitt’s technical and musical command. The two Toccatas showed she has steel fingers and is a perfect judge of pace, Nun komm… an uncanny metronomic precision. The final transcription, of the organ C minor Passacaglia, was especially revealing of both history and practice. The generous palette of colours provided by the Fazioli was heard to best advantage; even that could not disguise D’Albert’s overblown late Romanticism, a bygone era of Bach appreciation.

In Costa’s playing there is acceptance rather than hunger. He plays down the technical fireworks that his repertoire offers him, in favour of an affectionate, self-deprecating presentation of the musical text. Hewitt plays with an eye to impress. In her almost supernatural separation of Bach’s parts, not only melodic articulation but also tone colour and poise and pace, even platform manner, she never fails to make one gasp and marvel.

It was perhaps a misjudgement for Costa to begin with something as familiar as the Pathetique. The first movement exposed unsteadiness, and not until some way into the slow movement did one feel Costa was entirely inside the music. Beethoven performance-standards have always been high, with it comes expectation of absolute accuracy and insight; this was something of a cruel test, though the finale was sprightly and idiomatic.

With Chopin, Costa was immediately comfortable. The Nocturne was consciously impressionistic, an autumnal love scene, and moving for sheer beauty of sound. A certain muddiness of part-writing betrayed how little attention Costa pays to modern fashion. The Second Scherzo is a showpiece – it received the same treatment, an emphasis on sensuousness at the expense of heroism. Like Costa himself, it was understated, muted even. I have rarely if ever heard so little made of the quaver passagework in the outer sections. The equivalent passages of agitation, the trio’s arpeggios, and the chordal leaps that follow, were smoothed away into a homogenous cocoon of singing tone, their technical difficulties completely veiled; attractive but somewhat dated Chopin.

The Vianna da Motta rarities were eagerly anticipated, and not disappointing, with similarities to Grieg in their interest in folk music. Costa’s virtues of simplicity, fluency and affection served these pieces in good stead; the bagpipe effects of the waltz were particularly witty and effective. Likewise, Costa’s Albeniz was equally idiomatic and immediately winning.The evocation of guitars, the gentle melody in the central section of ’Triana’ – Costa had something special to offer.

In a few hours issues ancient and modern had been confronted – of musical and historical authenticity. To review these recitals together is not an intellectual conceit, or a natural response to contrast, it is an escape from the difficulty of saying anything new about Hewitt’s Bach, which is so flawlessly excellent, and so uniformly masterly, one longs to hear her in other repertoire. As for Costa, one is happy simply to have heard him.

  • Angela Hewitt plays Bach, Mozart and Beethoven at the Wigmore Hall on 14 January at 1pm – also live on BBC Radio 3. Box Office: 020 7935 2141
  • Angela Hewitt has recorded Bach Transcriptions for Hyperion – click here for review

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