The Great Canadian Artists: An Interview with Pianist Angela Hewitt

CanadaCanada  The Great Canadian Artists: An Interview with Pianist Angela Hewitthewitt(1)-400


Angela Hewitt grew up in Ottawa and began her piano studies at the age of three. She gave her first full-length recital at the age of nine at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she studied from 1964 to 1973. She later studied with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa. The pianist is universally recognized for her path-breaking series of recordings of Bach’s keyboard works for Hyperion which began in 1994 and finished in 2005. She recorded the ultimate masterpiece, The Art of the Fugue, in 2014. Between those dates, many new discs of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, Fauré and others were also released. In 2005, Ms. Hewitt launched the Trasimeno Music Festival, of which she is Artistic Director, in Umbria near Perugia. A tenth-anniversary concert takes place in London this spring. She is also an Ambassador for The Leading Note Foundation’s ʻOrkidstra’, a social engagement and development program in Ottawa’s inner city. Angela Hewitt was named ‘Artist of the Year’ at the 2006 Gramophone Awards and was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of the same year. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000.

Ms. Hewitt’s most memorable concerts in Vancouver in recent years have been her performances of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, and the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Daniel Muller-Schott. She was able to sit down and talk to me after a busy day of preparing Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain for performance with the Vancouver Symphony.

Geoffrey Newman: Everybody naturally associates you with Bach, but now you play a great many other things. Were you a Baroque specialist by training when you were young, or was the range of your repertoire really quite large?

Angela Hewitt: My father was an organist and choirmaster, so I was introduced to Bach right from my infancy. Perhaps he held the view that it was not good to give a child too much romantic music early on but I did have a large repertoire soon enough. By the age of fifteen, I was playing a lot of Chopin and Liszt, and Ravel too.

GN: I know you studied with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa  ̶  but I have very little feeling for all the early influences on your Bach interpretation.

AH: Yes, Sevilla loved to play Bach, and I had the recordings by Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck. Yet I think that it was my father who was still the key influence: all Bach’s great organ works were with us at every moment when I was growing up. I sang Bach, danced Bach and even played Bach on the violin, which I studied as well. Perhaps one other inspiration later was the ‘authentic’ movement which was gaining momentum in the 1980s. I was very intrigued by what conductors like Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardner were doing.

GN: So, from very early on, you were conscious of historical style when you performed Bach?

AH: Yes, I felt that to be a good Bach player you also must be something of a scholar, finding out about the time when a piece was written, the exact feeling and character of the dances and so on. When I started, I followed the rules in the Book of Ornaments fairly strictly, but as time has passed, I have become more flexible. The important thing for me now is how ‘musical’ the ornament is. It must really be consistent with the musical flow and, of course, it must always be in good taste. As you might expect, I have examined many interpretations on the harpsichord and I have actually tried the instrument myself. Unfortunately, a major limitation is that one cannot ‘taper’ on it – play one note louder or softer than the preceding one.

GN: When you listen to your early recordings of Bach, are you very conscious of the advances you have made over the years?

AH: Take, for example, my two recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the first in 1997, the second in 2008. I know some people still like the former, but I think that the latter is significantly better, having much more colour and rhythmic freedom. More generally, I think that I have become more advanced technically over the years. I still practice as much as I used to, but I have much more power and assurance, and I can do difficult things more easily. This is also very important in playing the larger romantic repertoire.

GN: As a performer, when you play the Art of the Fugue, as you have done in recent years, do you find you need a totally different mind-set to carry you through? How different is this from, say, playing the Goldberg Variations?

AH: In such a massive piece, your sheer stamina is so important, and you must learn to pace yourself over its full span. Every movement is a fugue  ̶  there are no Preludes for comic relief. As critic Wilfrid Mellers put it, it is ʻBach playing to God and himself in an empty churchʼ. The Goldberg Variations require great concentration too but they are, of course, shorter, less contrapuntal, and allow more variety of expression.

GN: On the issue of playing with a musical score in front of you, do you condone that generally?

AH: I would certainly discourage young musicians from doing this. I think that playing from memory allows you to be more interiorized and freer, and besides, keeping a good memory is a critical resource for when you get older. Having said that, on occasion I do use the score  ̶  which I now put on my iPad so as to turn the pages with my foot – when playing works that are immensely complicated. For pieces like Art of the Fugue, there may be no alternative.

GN: A number of pianists have said that if you can play Bach well, you can play anything well. Do you agree?

AH: Yes, I think that is true. It is a mistake for any pianist to not work on their Bach, since fundamental things like architecture, independence of fingering and equality of left and right hand strengths are all there. I think pianists who attempt later works without these fundamentals are definitely at a disadvantage.

GN: You also played and recorded Ravel fairly early on. The link between Bach and the French piano tradition has a long historical precedent, in Robert Casadesus, Marcelle Meyer and others. How did you establish this affinity?

AH: For the record, I actually recorded Ravel’s complete piano music right in the middle of my traversal of Bach’s complete keyboard works  ̶  in 2001. Much of my early exposure again came   from Jean Paul Sevilla, who graduated from the Paris Conservatoire. There are some interesting historical stories about this link: apparently when Debussy played a Bach Prelude and Fugue in competition, he was marked down for being too expressive!

GN: You have recorded Fauré and Debussy too. Do you find these composers quite different?

AH: With both Ravel and Debussy you must pay great attention to the tempi, rubati and the ‘sound’ itself. You must really work on the balance in the harmonies, the voicing in the chords (from top to bottom), and the sound cannot be too heavy. Even Debussy must be approached with the same care and attention as a Bach fugue. Fauré is very different, more ‘classical’ in feeling. You must find a distinct style for each.

GN: You are moving quickly to performing and recording concertos. For example, you now have three volumes of the Mozart concertos released. How different do you find it playing with an orchestra?

AH: Actually, when you are so well known for your Bach, it is sometimes more difficult to get orchestra managers to invite you to play other parts of the repertoire, such as larger concertos. I have studied and played many of the standard concertos since I was young. The one thing about playing with a conductor is that there sometimes has to be compromise, and in general a soloist cannot mesh with all conductors. I am thrilled with my collaboration with Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu in the Mozart concertos, and we have also recorded the Schumann concerto. I think we are a great match: he is as much a ‘perfectionist’ as I am. I can also get very good results conducting myself from the keyboard (which I do more often now), and then it becomes like chamber music. But in something like the Mozart’s K. 491 concerto (and especially its last movement), it helps to have a really top-notch conductor.

GN: What about lieder accompaniment?  I know that you will be performing with Dame Felicity Lott soon. Do you think there is a special art to accompanying voice?

AH: Yes, I am very excited about accompanying Felicity, and we have performed together before. One of my greatest joys is accompanying a truly great singer. The reason is simple: I love to sing too, and this gives us both a great freedom. I sing everywhere, and sing all the time when I am practicing. (I am not sure that my neighbours always appreciate this!) In general, I think it is critical for an accompanist to understand what a singer can do. If you are aware of ‘breath’ training and control, that certainly helps.

GN: What explains your recent interest in Liszt?

AH: Well, in many ways, this is sheer nostalgia. I won competition prizes with the B-minor Sonata when I was seventeen, and have played the work throughout my life. I knew the Dante Sonata from 1985. I actually did not like the B-minor Sonata at all when I very first heard it, but became converted when I heard Jean-Paul Sevilla play it.

GN: I know that many people might be wondering whether you are planning to perform the full cycle of Bach’s keyboard works all over again.

AH: That is a big question: the answer is ‘yes’!

GN: Many pianists are very committed to their own piano, as you are to your Fazioli. But do you think different pianos work better for different repertoire?

AH: In many ways, that is true, since different pianos have a distinct character and tonal palette that suit different repertoire. Look at the sheer variety of pianos available over the last century. Somebody put me down as a Steinway artist back in the early 1980s (I’m not sure why because I never owned one), but I was taken off the list when I purchased a Fazioli F278 grand in 2003. While there is always considerable variability in quality even in pianos made by any given maker, Fazioli has very high quality across the board, and I think my own Fazioli concert grand is terrific for any repertoire.

GN: Virtually all artists are more socially conscious than they used to be, and I have read about your humanitarian initiative ‘Orkidstra’. Why do you think we are seeing this change?

AH: Is it a change really? Liszt often played without fee, and funded himself the great monument to Beethoven. But I understand what you mean: musicians are now expected to participate in many types of public engagement activities and create or support charities. Yes, there is considerable pressure in this direction. It would certainly be very difficult to get a conducting post in North America if you didn’t agree to do social events.

GN: Being Canadian, it must always be a pleasure to come back and perform in your own   country. What are some of your fondest Canadian memories?

AH: I have always enjoyed the warmth of Canadians, and I have so many welcoming friends here whenever I come back. Little things, such as being able to record my most recent volume of the Mozart concertos with my original hometown orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, in 2013, certainly mean something to me. This week actually means a great deal to me: Sunday (May 11, 2015) is the thirtieth anniversary of my winning of the 1985 Toronto International Bach Competition, a prize that entitled me to record my initial disc for Deutsche Grammophon, and sent my career on its way.

 Geoffrey Newman



Previously published in a slightly different form on

Leave a Comment