Angela Hewitt Excels in French Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Couperin, Faure, Rameau: Angela Hewitt (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 7.6.2012 (RB)

Couperin:  Pièces de Clavecin
Fauré:  Thème et Variations in C sharp Minor Op 73
Nocturne No. 5 in B flat Op 37
Nocturne No. 6 in D flat Op 63
Nocturne No. 13 in B minor Op 119
Rameau:  Suite in A minor

Angela Hewitt is one of the world’s foremost interpreters of baroque keyboard music but is also building an admirable reputation as a leading authority in French music having released discs of Chabrier, Ravel and Messiaen. She has also released a number of Couperin and Rameau recordings which have received critical acclaim so for this recital I was pleased to see her return to these composers, which are not heard as often as they should be.

Hewitt opened her recital with a collection of pieces by Couperin, four from the sixth Ordre including the famous Les Baricades Misterieuses followed by three other pieces from assorted Ordres. Couperin’s keyboard suites or Ordres are made up of works which use traditional baroque forms or dances but many have descriptive titles and they are famous for their incredibly ornate ornamentation. Hewitt has clearly made a detailed study of this composer’s ornamentation and her playing of these highly intricate figurations was immaculate throughout. She opened with Les Moissonneurs (‘The Harvesters’) and she captured beautifully the rustic charm of the piece and played the ornaments very tightly and dryly. In Les Langeurs-Tendres (‘Lovelorn Sighs’) Hewitt wove an incredibly intricate patchwork of sound and played with an impressive degree of clarity. She used her Fazioli piano to striking effect in Les Barricades Misterieuses where she used a velvet touch to instil an emotional depth into the piece and underscored beautifully the subtle harmonic shifts. In Le Moucheron (‘The Small Fly’) Hewitt brought out the sprightly dance-like elements of the gigue to striking effect.

Les Rossignol-en-amour (‘The nightingale in love’) was tasteful and authoritative while La Pantomime with its associations of the commedia dell’arte was played with extreme delicacy, with the melodic lines sensitively shaped and crafted. The Couperin selection concluded with the Passacaille from the eight Ordre which was a favourite piece of Wanda Landowska and is now being championed by Hewitt. Miss Hewitt played the trills with exceptional clarity and used a variety of perfectly judged tone colours to bring out the dramatic contrasts between the different sections.

She concluded the first half of the concert with Fauré’s Theme and Variations in C sharp minor which is the longest piano piece written by the composer, and one of the great sets of piano variations from the second half of the 19th century. The opening theme was played with depth and refinement while each of the successive variations was tastefully characterised. Hewitt deployed a lightness of touch and range of timbre to bring out the playfulness of the two scherzando variations. The textural layering and tonal variety in the fourth variation was superb while there was sensuous shaping of phrases in the seventh variation. The final polyphonic coda was played with calm authority and deliberation bringing this great set to a weighty conclusion.

When the first half of a concert reaches a certain exemplary standard you sometimes think things can only go downhill, but Hewitt seemed to get better and better in this recital. She seemed physically to inhabit the emotional world of the three Fauré nocturnes which opened the second half. The filigree figurations in the opening section of the Nocturne in B flat were perfectly sculpted while in the turbulent middle section Hewitt seemed to find just the right balance between passion and Gallic restraint. Fauré’s Nocturne in D flat is one of the unsung glories of the French piano repertoire and was described by Marguerite Long as ‘a vast poem of passion and dreams’. The opening section was delicately perfumed and full of sensual longing, while Hewitt managed to evoke magical half-lights with the rustling semi-quavers of the middle section. The B minor nocturne was written in 1921 when the composer was suffering from deafness and some of the harmonic progressions in the work are strikingly modern. Hewitt deftly underscored the subtle harmonic shifts and gave the piece a probing and improvisatory feel while at the same time achieving a sense of structural cohesion.

The recital concluded with Rameau’s glorious Suite in A minor, which is made up of baroque dances and character pieces, some of which are very virtuosic for the time they were written. The opening Allemande was taken at a stately pace with Hewitt bringing out the emotional weight of the work in the inner contrapuntal lines. With the Courante, Hewitt deployed a range of learned period features and rhythmic subtlety to highlight the dance elements in the music, while the Sarabande was played with an ornate grandeur. The Scarlatti-like hand crossing in Les Trois Mains was deft and skilful with Hewitt handling the virtuoso demands in an assured but unobtrusive way, which highlighted the dance elements in the music rather than technical showiness. The final Gavotte was highly embroidered and Hewitt successfully kept the pulse steady in the doubles with their increasingly intricate figurations. She managed to achieve a superbly calibrated build-up in intensity and brilliance in the final three doubles bringing the suite to a glorious conclusion.

As an encore, Hewitt played the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth French Suite and again showed her vast knowledge of baroque keyboard technique with her intricate embroidery of the main theme. This was exceptionally fine playing from a world class player who was clearly on top form.

Robert Beattie