From Classical Restraint to Wild Baroque in Hewitt Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, Bach: Angela Hewitt (piano) International Piano Series. St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 18.2.2014, (CR)

Haydn: Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII: 6
Beethoven: Sonata in A major, Op. 2 No. 2
Bach: English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903


In the second concert of the International Piano Series held in Oxford, Angela Hewitt explored a range of forms by some of the most prominent exponents of keyboard music in the 18th century. The programme proceeded more or less backwards from 1790s Vienna to Bach’s years in Weimar and Cöthen.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor (1793) are subtitled ‘Un piccolo divertimento’ – seemingly ironically, as this is a searching, introverted work that would not be out of place within the piano version of the composer’s Seven Last Words. Hewitt resisted the temptation to invest the piece with too anachronistic a sense of Beethovenian impetuosity. Rather, it remained equable and composed, looking back to the fastidiousness of earlier, Bachian models and exuding a Mozartian grace in the chromatic appoggiaturas of the major key Trio section. Nevertheless Hewitt was clear that the work should be a fairly flowing Andante rather than a stolid Adagio; the dotted figures of the opening theme were insistent; and the arpeggio flourishes of the Trio were given as quicksilver flashes.

Again, her performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (completed 1795) remained essentially polite and poised, not overwrought with the rawer emotions expressed in the later sonatas of Beethoven’s middle period. There was certainly a bubbling energy in the excitable octave theme opening the sonata which gave way to some passion and fire later in the work, but the contrasts were relatively subtle, not stark. The contrast between the dandyish plod of the staccato semiquavers under the hymn-like melody of the slow movement and the passionate transformation of this passage later on was drawn solemnly, while the more turbulent episode of the Rondo finale sounded more like a nervous defensiveness than resolute defiance. The levity of the Scherzo’s arpeggio wisps were sensitively dispelled by the more probing minor key episodes. It was only the outburst of agitation in the development of the first movement that seemed disjointed and failed to make complete musical sense in the movement as a whole.

It says something for Hewitt’s fearless and serious engagement with Bach’s music that her performances in the second half offered some of the wildest displays in this recital. The storm of the Prelude to the English Suite No. 3 was mirrored by the restless reading of the Gigue to conclude. In between came a series of dances which provided the space for reflection upon the tragedy or sorrow to which this work seems to bear witness. Hewitt attained this by the fluent line she sustained in each movement so that the underlying pulse was not mechanical or overt, but could certainly be felt, and urgency was brought from within the music not imposed upon it. This worked most tellingly in the Sarabande where the frequently pregnant chords on the second beat of the bar imbued a subtle pathos and tragic inevitability to the emotional progress of that movement.

In the Chromatic Fantasy Hewitt unleashed a frenzied torrent of semiquavers which, at times, could have been the cadenza to a Beethoven piano concerto. However, her performance was still bounded by a palpable structural logic – with each section clearly delineated and climaxes achieved – standing in contrast to some performances which tend to become a mere torrent of notes. The swift account of the Fugue followed a clear dramatic trajectory too, starting from the quiet concentration of the exposition that foreshadowed the private world of the Art of Fugue, and culminating in the electrifying final entry of the subject in the high soprano register, underpinned by some powerful bass notes. The expressive nuances and ultimate grandeur of her readings of Bach were so compelling and musical as to render any contrarian claims about ‘authenticity’ and period performance practice specious or irrelevant – an evident sign of Hewitt’s consummate musicianship.

The emotional temperature was cooled with two encores. First an intimate account of Scarlatti’s bright Sonata in E major Kk 380 with fanfares calling in the distance, and then an athletic reading of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 1 BWV 825.

Curtis Rogers

Details of the future recitals in the International Piano Series can be found here.