Angela Hewitt Sparkles in Ravel and de Falla but Performances Do Not Quite Add Up

CanadaCanada Ravel, de Falla, and Marquez: Angela Hewitt (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Kazuyoshi Akiyama (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 10.5.2015 (GN)

Marquez: Danzon No. 2 (1994)
De Falla: Nights in the Garden of Spain
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major; Le Tombeau de Couperin

It is always a pleasure when Angela Hewitt comes back to Canada.  She has progressed a very long way from her early beginnings in Ottawa and Toronto three decades ago and, alongside Marc-Andre Hamelin and Louis Lortie, now stands as one of the supreme Canadian pianists of this age, as well as one of the world’s most successful and visible proponents of Bach on the piano.  As her recording history reveals, Hewitt is remarkably wide ranging, having now moved through much of the French repertoire, penetrated Mozart and Beethoven, and very recently Liszt.  For this concert, her first in Vancouver for a number of years, she chose to perform both the Ravel Left-Hand Piano Concerto and Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain – a particularly engaging package.  I thought this was marvelous and her playing, as always, was distinguished by such transparent and sparkling articulation.  Maestro Akiyama conducted with clean lines too, yet there were still aspects of the performances that I thought were off the mark, one complicating factor being that the balance did not favour the piano.

The Ravel performance exhibited some stellar pianism from Hewitt, firm and commanding when it needed to be, animated as well, but also capable of a flowing poetic response to the softer reveries, chiseling textures with a fineness and balance that we rarely see. Under this approach, the work is potentially less bombastic and gains a refined beauty and crystalline motion.  These characteristics are all familiar from the pianist’s complete traversal of Ravel’s solo piano music on Hyperion.  Unfortunately, the orchestral shaping did not quite match the piano.  The opening of the work – normally rising very quietly and mysteriously ‘from the mists’ – was simply too quick and too loud to allow the work to settle into its dramatic line.  Later orchestral outbursts seemed more episodic than a natural extension of the work’s organic growth, and many of the softer passages lacked the type of real refinement and delicacy that would sit well with the piano’s contribution.  Perhaps the enemy here was speed itself, always moving the work forward, and making it difficult to savour its more mysterious corners or coax out its space or sensuality.  I enjoyed the imaginative and elegant pianism on display, but it would be difficult to say that the overall result was fully satisfying.

I felt some imbalance between the orchestra and the output of Hewitt’s Fazioli in the Ravel, but there it didn’t matter too much since a lot of the piano part is solo.  The Falla was more of a problem, as the piano and orchestra play together frequently.  Again, there was a very alert, yet fluid, contribution from the pianist — when I could hear it — but the orchestra’s contribution unambiguously took center stage.  There was strength and ‘tightness’ in Maestro Akiyama’s conducting, but little penetration of the perfumed fragrance and mystery of a Spanish night.  The opening of the Nights… was seemingly more in the light of day (if that is possible), more projected and much less haunting than it might be.  Orchestral tremolos were strongly etched but not mysterious.  The conducting also tended towards the dramatic, its searing moments taking one to almost to a film music setting in which, say, ethnic farmers sit in a field under a scorching sun.  Hewitt did contribute some strikingly animated playing as things progressed, but her presence remained modest overall.  What was missing here was the type of subtle orchestral colour and nuance that, alongside the piano, can bring the music’s evocative magic to life.

After a fairly hasty start to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Akiyama settled into a more natural rhythmic pacing in the Forlane, finding the right type of charm and character, aided by the imagination and sensuality of principal oboe Roger Cole.  The Menuet was successful too, but the closing Rigaudon had a slightly brusque feeling to it.  The curtain-raiser was Mexican Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2 (1994), a lighter piece with infectious Cuban dance rhythms and a big-band sound.

Overall, this was a fine combination of works to put together and, for any qualifications I may have had, I enjoyed the experience of going through them as much as I did the opportunity to see Angela Hewitt play again.

Geoffrey Newman

 Previously published in a slightly different form on


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