Angela Hewitt Gets the 2015/16 International Piano Series off to a Great Start

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Liszt. Angela Hewitt (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.10.2015 (CC)

Bach Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV992
Scarlatti Three Sonatas: Kk69, Kk427 & Kk96
Bach Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV826
Beethoven Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 81a, ‘Les Adieux’
Liszt Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année, S161:
“Sonetta 123 del Petrarca”; Après une lecture du Dante (‘Dante Sonata’)

Opening the 2015/16 International Piano Series, Angela Hewitt gave a daringly wide-ranging programme. The core Hewitt repertoire was there, in a first half centring around her beloved Bach (and her Hyperion recordings of his music have surely brought delight to thousands). In the second part she branched out to Beethoven and Liszt, both composers she has tackled in her Hyperion discography.

The Bach Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo is a piece I have not heard since the days of LP: Ralph Kirkpatrick’s 1961 recording on Archiv, to be precise.  What a delight to make re-acquaintance with it here. Hewitt is a Fazioli artist, and although the brightness of the sound initially took some getting used to, it came into its own in the more extrovert movements (particularly the ‘Aria di postiglione’ and the ensuing ‘Fuga all’imitazione della cornetta di postiglione’). Just who was departing is the subject of some academic debate: it could be Johann Sebastian’s brother Johann Jakob, an oboist who left for the court of Charles XII of Sweden in 1704; it could also have been an old school friend of Bach’s, Georg Erdmann, making himself scarce. Whoever it was, this six-part piece is a continuous delight from first to last. Hewitt seemed able to capture the remarkable variety of Bach’s textures in this piece, and she made the Adagissimo, with its lovely chromatic descents, properly desolate. Crisp rhythms in the more animated sections offered perfect contrast. Not only that, it made a delicious link to surely the most famous pianistic farewell, Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata.

First, though, she offered some contrasting music by Domenico Scarlatti: a clutch of three sonatas. Hewitt’s occasional technical fallibility in the faster sonatas (the G-Major Kk427 and the D major, Kk96) seemed a reminder of just how challenging Scarlatti’s writing can be, particularly perhaps in the bold cross-handed effects of Kk96. Yet Kk427 held a wonderfully fluent left-hand, the piece’s busy surface stock full of vim. The misterioso view Hewitt held of the F minor, Kk69, with its limpid demeanour, offered the most emotionally satisfying outing into Scarlatti territory.

There was the feeling of returning to home turf, though, for the Second Partita of Bach, a magnificent piece that included high drama (the opening Sinfonia), fugue (of course: spiky and in complete contrast to the smoother interlude which precedes it) and a gently unfolding Allemande. There was also a decorative, almost flighty Courante, a simply gorgeous Sarabande with a superb sense of line and squeaky-clean articulation in the concluding Capriccio. When Hewitt plays like this it is difficult to envision any other interpretation such is the sense of rightness.

Fast-forward to the Classical era for Beethoven. I have reviewed a couple of Hewitt’s Hyperion Beethoven discs for MusicWeb International (here and here), finding them appealing if not life-changing. Continuing the theme of parting, Hewitt chose the Op. 81a Sonata, ‘Les Adieux’. The exploratory nature of the first movement was excellently done, its technical challenges hardly noticeable. Unfortunately the central movement (‘Abwesenheit’) lacked some depth, as if Hewitt wanted to present it as an alternative slow movement to one of Beethoven’s very early sonatas, one from Op. 2 perhaps. The finale was the finest movement, blessed with astonishing dexterity as well as determination. But in the final analysis this was simply too uneven a performance to be entirely convincing.

Hewitt has also recorded both of the Liszt pieces here for Hyperion (appearing together on the same disc, reviewed, this time not by me, here and here). The Sonetto 123 del Petrarca was beautiful in the superb legato of the lines (which took on a real ‘vocal’ quality), Hewitt’s perfect trills and the overall crepuscular impression she created. The close, in particular, was exceptional in its perfect keyboard weighting.

Finally, we heard the so-called ‘Dante Sonata’. Far more than B minor Sonata-lite, this is a ferocious yet compact work that contains some of Liszt’s most striking writing. Hewitt really embraced Liszt’s daring rhetoric, while finding an exquisite way to caress the more melting phrases. Moments of radiance were close to miraculous. The surprise was, perhaps, that there was only one encore: Hewitt’s own arrangement of Alle Menschen müssen sterben (‘All men must die’ from the Little Organ Book). Yet even that seemed perfectly chosen, a counterbalance to the extroversion of the Liszt ‘Dante Sonata’.

This was a great way to start the season. Interested readers should note that the recitals of the International Piano Series which one might usually expect to take place in the Queen Elizabeth Hall are this year relocated to St John’s Smith Square.


Colin Clarke

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