Angela Hewitt and the Britten Sinfonia

Bach, Stravinsky, Mozart, and Bach-Sitkovetsky: Angela Hewitt (piano), Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Gould (leader/director). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 4.4.2011 (MB)

Bach – Piano Concerto no.5 in F minor, BWV 1056
Stravinsky – Concerto in D
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Bach-Sitkovetsky – Goldberg Variations

The Britten Sinfonia is on a high at the moment; almost the only musical winner from the latest savage Arts Council funding settlement. (I still shudder with horror at my naïveté in having taken at face value Nick Clegg’s relatively encouraging words concerning the arts: ‘useful idiot’ was Lenin’s phrase, I believe.) Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note one good cause rewarded against what is indeed a desolate backdrop. It is richly deserved, even though the misfortunes suffered by others are not. For this programme, the orchestra was joined by Angela Hewitt for two concertos, whilst left in the capable hands of Thomas Gould for Stravinsky’s Concerto in D and Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string orchestra transcription of the Goldberg Variations.

Bach’s F minor piano concerto opened the programme – more a showcase for Hewitt than the orchestra, though it provided dependable accompaniment. Hewitt imparted strong rhythmical and harmonic understanding to the external movements and pearly tone that might almost have been taken for Murray Perahia’s. The slow movement was graceful, if somewhat cool; I did not care for her staccato bass notes, though orchestral pizzicati hit the spot.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for string orchestra was firmly announced at the very outset as being ‘in D’, echoing his piano Serenade in A. Pitch is crucial here rather than tonality, which remains a ghostly presence: D, rather than D major, is the thing. Motor rhythms, recalling sewing-machine, neo-classical Bach, were imprinted upon the consciousness in an absolutely secure performance from the Britten Sinfonia. Articulation was first-rate, likewise interplay between the string sections. The slow movement sounded, as it should, as if it wanted to sing like Tchaikovsky, yet could not – or could not quite bring itself to do so. There was some beautiful string playing here, tonally alluring and alert to every harmonic shift. It sounded closer to Prokofiev than I can recall hearing before: more than fine with me, though I suspect that Stravinsky might at least have claimed to think otherwise. The finale was quirky yet never grotesquely so. Strong leadership from the front desk of first violins (Gould and Beatrix Lovejoy) recalled The Soldier’s Tale.

Hewitt returned for what Alfred Brendel rightly called ‘one of the greatest wonders of the world,’ Mozart’s first truly great piano concerto, no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271. The first movement received a perky reading, with nicely shaded piano contributions, unerringly tasteful. In this work, and this work alone, however, I missed a greater body of strings, and more generous string vibrato. The orchestra sounded properly dark in the slow movement, yet low-calorie vibrato led to some whining moments: a pity. Oboe solos, however, were especially fine. Hewitt contributed a true sense of drama, her playing far from merely pretty; that said, I did not care at all for the abrupt conclusion. This is an aria from start to finish. The finale was full of life, and again nicely shaded, both orchestrally and pianistically. I almost forgot my desire for greater tonal refulgence: the English Chamber Orchestra at least, though the Vienna Philharmonic would be preferable. Yet the extraordinary slow minuet interruption sounded skated over, wanting profundity; it failed to tug the heart strings as it should. The final bars, however, were enchanting.

Sitkovetsky’s Goldberg transcription is a wonderful discovery (for me, that is: it has been around for a while). I cannot imagine a string transcription more inventive without being unduly fussy. Here solo, tutti, and somewhere-in-between passages alternate with such natural ease that one might almost imagine one were listening to a Baroque concerto grosso. The shift from the opening Aria to the fully scored first variation sounded just that way, and what a relief it was that the players employed considerably more vibrato than they had in the Mozart. Gould’s solo in the Aria sounded almost Romantic, at least in contemporary terms, and was all the better for it. Tempi were always well chosen, with a keen sense of variety but also of overall progression. Counterpoint was not only clear but also harmonically meaningful. Where necessary, there was a creditable, almost Handelian sturdiness, so pitifully absent from most Bach performances nowadays, yet by the same token, the players showed fleetness of foot when required. Minor-mode variations, and not just the ‘Black Pearl,’ revelled in Bach’s chromaticism, leading us towards Berg whilst also suggesting the dignity of the ancient viol consort. The celebrated ‘Black Pearl’ itself had an entirely apt French – dare I suggest Purcellian? – lilt to its stately progression, its beauty gravely frozen. Rich tone indeed was applied to the delightful Quodlibet, a just reward for a fine performance, before solo instruments returned for the closing Aria. Everything was the same, yet everything was entirely different. Bach-lovers must take comfort where they can in a reductive age, actively hostile to the challenges the composer sets: here was not only comfort but also inspiration.

Mark Berry