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Hewitt delivers BLOCKBUSTER evening

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
03/22/2016 -  
Franz Schubert: Moments musicaux, Op. 94, D. 780, Nos. 1, 2 and 3
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (“The Tempest”)
Franz Josef Haydn: Fantasia in C major, Hob. XVII:4
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas in C major, K. 513, in F major, K. 82, in F minor, K. 481, & in A major, K. 24
Isaac Albéniz: Suite espanola, opus 47: 3. “Sevilla (Sevillanas)”, 5. “Asturias (Leyenda)” & 7. “Castilla (Seguidilla)”
Manuel de Falla: Fantasia Bætica

Angela Hewitt (piano)

A. Hewitt (© Maria Teresa De Luca)

Angela Hewitt’s recital this week was an ‘event’ performance in more ways than one. Ottawa of course is her home town – she was born here in July, 1958. And many, including this reviewer, remember her earliest public performing from the age of four. Studies at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory with Myrtle Rose Guerrero (widow of Alberto Guerrero who had been Glenn Gould’s primary teacher) and with Jean-Paul Sevilla (Algerian born and based at University of Ottawa during the 1970s) brought Hewitt to a confident adulthood. Her playing never had the forced, aggressive quality we associate with so many young pianists trained in North America, especially those who pursue the competition circuit.

It was, however, Hewitt’s victory in Toronto’s Bach International Competition in 1985 which completed the transformation from emerging prodigy to established adult. The Competition honoured Bach’s tercentenary and generated the start of Hewitt’s reputation as a specialist in the composer’s work, which she has performed and recorded almost exhaustively during the past three decades. Her first CD for Deutsche Grammophon included Bach’s English Suite No. 6, the Italian Concerto and shorter works and her discography since may be the only one to rival that of Glenn Gould himself.

Nevertheless, time passes. The best artists grow and continue developing, and Angela Hewitt is proving a salutary example. For one thing, her program this week encompassed no Bach except for an encore, the familiar arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring from the Cantata, BWV 147, which she dedicated to those who lost their lives earlier in the day in Brussels. The recital served notice Hewitt is moving in new directions, in terms of repertoire and in her approach to the music. In the past there have been times when her playing could be predictable, albeit always elegantly graceful. But the last few years have shown a marked shift. A year ago she released an all Liszt CD and was preparing a Scarlatti disc, released February 5, 2016. She included both composers in her recital for Ottawa Chamberfest’s in January, 2015.

This week’s program began with Schubert, the first three of the composer’s Moments musicaux, Op. 94 which, along with the two sets of Impromptus, date from the end of the composer’s life. These melodic, ingratiating works have always been popular, though they are structurally adventurous, playing around with sonata, rondo and variations form in a way which Chopin also explored in his Ballades.

Hewitt’s playing of the first one in C major brilliantly communicated the opening’s questioning phrase, as well as the more affecting second subject in chords. The hesitating opening subject of the second piece has a less declamatory tone, almost the plaint of an unrequited lover’s sadness. Again, Hewitt caught the mood brilliantly, with keen focus and rhythmic tension which were nothing short of masterful. In the third, with its familiar one-two rhythm and almost arpeggiated right hand melody, she brought this opening group to a striking finish and did so with a level of authority which listeners knew meant that even bigger, better treats were soon to come.

Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata invites comparisons with his “Appassionata” Sonata (composed a bit later and also from his second period), though is more concise and in purely pianistic terms is more forward looking. The slow, melodically arpeggiated chords which open the work and recur frequently are a device Chopin borrowed with minimal modification for his Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49 and the even more elaborate Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. The “Tempest” Sonata, for all its structural artifice and quite sensual pianism, is a work of intense drama and constant contrasts, and Hewitt swallowed it whole. From the start, she played with drama, clarity and authority. The three-register dialogue which characterizes the second movement was revealed like fine chamber music, while Hewitt brought a kind of ghostly sensuality to the final one, especially the series of evolving A major based chords tipped in melody which prefigure the main theme’s final statement. By any standards this was Beethoven performance at a very high level indeed.

The program’s first half ended with Haydn’s brief Fantasia in C major, an exquisitely complex showpiece which embraced Scarlatti-like horn figurations and sprays of arpeggios. The work is a genuine Fantasy, encompassing in five or six minutes a staggering range of small ideas which Haydn quickly and richly developed. Again, Hewitt was in her element performing a work which has complexities comparable with everything from some of the most exotic segments of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to some of the most demanding Etudes by Liszt and Chopin.

After intermission, it was time for Scarlatti. Hewitt’s playing was admirable in its grasp of ongoing dialogues, finger flying arabesques, and exquisite melancholy in the Sonata in F minor. The group ended with the Sonata in A major which Vladimir Horowitz chose to close his iconic 1964 Scarlatti LP. It takes real courage for any pianist to tackle this one – whether or not they, or anticipated listeners, are familiar with the Horowitz version – opening, as it does, with sprays of repeated staccato notes sometimes screeching up and down the keyboard. Again, Hewitt demonstrated a masterful grasp of the music’s intricacies and glimmering virtuosity which, to say the least, was breathtaking.

Finally it was Spanish music, Albéniz and Falla. In three excerpts from the former’s Suite espanola Hewitt was in her element, bringing a dry, more transparent approach to the music than many (less pedal, in particular), though doing so to illuminate the details with greater clarity, an approach which is no surprise from an artist perhaps best known for performing works of the baroque and classical eras. The Albéniz highlight perhaps was “Asturias”, with its steady, slow crescendo. In Falla’s Fantasia Bætica, the teasing figurations and overall virtuosity brought the evening to a close which melded technique, musicianship – and even showmanship.

By any standards, this was a spectacular evening of blockbuster piano playing. I might have preferred the Beethoven and the Spanish works on a Steinway rather than the Fazioli (Hewitt’s own instrument), though understand her reasons this choice. The Fazioli’s upper register does not project as well as a good American or Hamburg Steinway, though there was improvement after intermission. The piano was positioned more or less centre stage with a slight backward tilt, presumably to make keyboard views possible for a greater range of the audience. This may or not have been an issue impacting on sonic projection, though the sold out audience’s standing ovation made it clear they were more than happy with the pianist and her instrument.

Angela Hewitt’s website

Charles Pope Jr.



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