Angela Hewitt Plays a Magisterial Beethoven Emperor Concerto

01/11/2018

Bernstein, Beethoven, Sibelius: Angela Hewitt (pianist), Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra / Yutaka Sado (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.10.2018. (GT)

Angela Hewitt (c) Keith Saunders

Bernstein – Three Dance Episodes from On the Town

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 ‘Emperor’

Sibelius – Symphony No.5

This Viennese orchestra made a highly successful appearance here two years ago and on this occasion brought a star soloist in the Canadian/British pianist Angela Hewitt in one of the most glorious classical concertos. In her interview with me prior to this concert tour (click here), Ms Hewitt praised the ensemble for their mixture of youth and experienced men and women musicians in an orchestra from the city where Beethoven lived and worked.

In celebrating the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s birth centenary, there was an important connection for Bernstein frequently worked in Vienna making celebrated recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies and conducting at the Vienna State Opera. Tonight’s conductor Yutaka Sado was an assistant to Bernstein and this association lent more frisson to the concert. The Great Lover from Bernstein’s early 1944 ballet On the Town set the tone for this excellent evening’s entertainment. To hear a virtuoso orchestra from Vienna play in jazz idiom is a unique experience, with immaculate intonations from the bright syncopations from the brass and wind sections; the saxophone with its sleepy rhythm and the clarinet were magnificent. The central episode Lonely in Town: Pas de deux was sensitively affected with wonderful playing from the big violin section, and the most celebrated idea from the ballet arrived with New York, New York from Times Square: 1944 in a justifiably celebratory episode, brilliance in the breezy tunes, and splendid play on clarinets, tenor sax and vivid saxophone, and to crown it all, the quite glorious three trombones. This albeit brief performance of Bernstein’s ballet was to my ears the best heard in the Bernstein centenary year; it seems to encapsulate all the brilliant genius of this great American musician. One just hopes that his music will remain as much a part of the repertoire in years to come.

Angela Hewitt told me how much she was looking forward to playing the Emperor Concerto with this excellent Viennese orchestra, and certainly she ensured she had suitable conditions by taking a few moments in carefully lowering her piano stool to the appropriate height in preparation. Hewitt’s fingers touch the keys as if playing with a necklace of precisely cut diamonds, glittering and shining as perfect as the day they were written. At intervals she took care to listen to her colleagues in the orchestra, listening to a woodwind player or cello player, each and every note was carefully considered and spun out like a string of pearls. She has a majestic French manner making prodigious sweeps with her arms and throwing her head back when finishing a passage with the orchestra, offering lovely responses and grace in movement. Throughout this performance I kept writing the words ‘magisterial’ and ‘dazzling’ for her stylishness in Beethoven, it was also heroic and of crystal-clear clarity. This was a demonstration of old-style pianism – true to the composer and displaying all the artistry of a world-class pianist. As an encore she gave the Adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13, in a carefully sculptured performance that was as extraordinary as was her playing of the concerto.

In the Sibelius Fifth, we had an opportunity to better assess the conductor who has been this orchestra’s music director for three years and with whom they have made a series of recordings. Sado studied with Bernstein and Ozawa, and he has amassed a respectable experience with distinguished ensembles world-wide. He is good to watch while he refrains from being too demonstrative, careful in his gestures, clear that much of his work is spent on preparation, so disciplined are his musicians. At the opening, the Vienna brass players were splendid, their golden hues allowing this reading a special quality, followed by some immaculate playing on the flute, together creating an idiom of expectancy, leading to mystery, and the sinister theme from the hugely talented strings, especially the violas on the conductor’s right. The violin sections were enjoyable to listen to playing this Nordic music as majestically as would even finer orchestras. In the development section of the first movement, we heard the expressive hints of swans taking flight into the wintry air. The mastery of the strings were heard to their maximum potential in the elegiac and gentle passages of the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, with the bassoon of Gottfried Pokorny, inducing the flight of a bird over quietly rustling strings. In the finale, the orchestra displayed their fine discipline, with the horns magisterial in announcing the great ‘swan’ theme, and Sado’s handling of the slowly building theme, tense and moving, with especially beautiful playing from the flutes, before the great climactic conclusion. As an encore they gave us the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, as brilliantly played as it has ever been heard in this hall.

This was an excellent concert with highlights in all three pieces performed here.

Gregor Tassie

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