Angela Hewitt

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Published: 19th May, 2017

What is there in Canadian water that produces arguably the two finest and most influential Bach keyboard players of recent generations? Glenn Gould and now Angela Hewitt have the led the way in looking anew, at least from a piano perspective, at the Leipzig Kapellmeister. Each has been as powerfully persuasive, yet distinctively individual, as the other. Over the years Hewitt has traversed Bach’s entire keyboard oeuvre, with unqualified success, yet to characterize her exclusively as a master Bach interpreter would be to perform a great disservice, as tonight’s recital bore witness.

Playing her favoured Fazioli piano and seated perfectly still at the keyboard (we were later to discover that she had injured her back earlier that day!) Hewitt began her program with two Bach Partitas, the more genteel, lyrical No 1 in B flat and then by way of contrast, a more overtly festive and joyous, indeed virtuosic No 4 in D major. Bach’s Partitas, his first published works, offer the listener a Cook’s tour of bi-partite European dances, assembled so as to maximize contrast. As one might expect from an artist of Hewitt’s stature, this was unquestionably exemplary Bach playing that engaged the listener from first note to last.

From the beguiling lyricism of the opening Partita’s Praeludium – one could not but help recall Dinu Lipatti’s legendary last recital account – through to the scalic flourishes of the Overture and the nimble energy of the D major’s concluding Gigue, Hewitt danced and we danced along with her. Repeats were generously offered, yet interest never flagged as Hewitt stylishly varied dynamic registration, articulation and more besides. Ornamentation never sounded calculated, always appearing to be spontaneous responses to the harmonic and melodic argument. Pedalling was discreet throughout, maintaining textural clarity in a generous acoustic that can be unforgiving to less keenly attuned pianists.

As one would hope in such a celebration of dance, rhythm was taut while never descending into unyielding metronomicity – Hewitt’s rubato was always sensitive and tasteful with a gently pliability at elegantly shaped cadential moments. Best of all however was Hewitt’s sense of linearity. Even for works that are not overtly contrapuntal, Bach cannot help himself, always lending melodic interest to what for all intents and purposes are less important accompanimental textures. These Hewitt crafted as carefully as the prime melodic material such that one could easily imagine listening to a recital of Hewitt’s left hand alone, and still remain transfixed.

After interval, staying in the Baroque, Hewitt offered five Scarlatti sonatas, deliciously buoyant and rhythmic, even in the more stately, processional E major sonata. Trills were exquisitely fashioned and rapid repeated notes – a feature of so much of the Italian master writing – crystal clear in execution. Scarlatti is often credited with being the first true idiomatic ‘keyboard’ composer. Moreover, some suggest that the majority of the sonatas were conceived for the fortepiano rather than the harpsichord, which would truly make Scarlatti the first ‘piano’ composer. These were dexterous readings, brimming with appropriate joie de vivre.

Then followed Ravel’s Sonatine – diminutive in name but not in nature. It has many tricky corners for the inexperienced pianist as well as delicate textures that, ineptly handled, can too easily become busy and heavy-handed. However Hewitt’s tonal palette is one of seemingly infinite variety, ever-nuanced and yet always purposeful, responding sensitively to each movement’s localized harmonic subtleties, while still maintaining a strong sense of the larger-scale melodic line and architecture.

Finally in a fitting conclusion to this festival of dance, Hewitt offered the less well-known Bourée Fantasque by Emmanuel Chabrier, an orchestrally conceived masterpiece of rhythm and colour. Just as the recital began with Bach’s first published composition, so it ended with Chabrier’s last published composition. The French composer wrote of it containing no less than 113 different sonorities – if Hewitt missed any of them, we didn’t notice.

Hewitt is a frequent visitor to Australia – let’s hope she continues to return, and frequently. If you missed her Tuesday night recital, be sure to get to her Saturday night recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre where Hewitt offers a largely different program. Bach’s Second Partita this time (as well as tonight’s Fourth) and two early period Beethoven Sonatas.

Glenn Riddle reviewed Angela Hewitt’s recital at the MRC on May 16, 2017.