Angela Hewitt talks with Gregor Tassie

Angela Hewitt © Keith Saunders

The Canadian/British pianist has been a major figure on the international concert circuit since her victory in 1985 at the International Bach Piano Competition in Toronto, one of the awards of which was a debut recording with Deutsche Grammophon of Bach. Her recording in many ways opened up her career to new audiences and she has since established herself as a formidable interpreter of Baroque music along with the Impressionist French school of Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.

I spoke to her prior to a major UK tour with the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra in which she is playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and two Bach keyboard concerti – F minor BWV 1056 and D minor BWV 1052. Based in Ottawa, I spoke to Angela Hewitt on the day of a mammoth solo recital of the second book from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

GT: In your early years you went through the piano competition circuit and managed to achieve success which helped develop your career. What do you think now of the competition circuit cycle – would you encourage young pianists to take up this challenge?

AH: I do, I think it is a good way to go. I advise the musicians that I follow to go into competitions. Now everything is just out there and there are so many competitions to choose from. In my day there were many, but today there are even more, and even more winnings. The competitions help get one work – it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you win the first prize you can make a career, but you have to keep the momentum going. If you get to the final you get the chance to play with an orchestra, and that is very important, plus you get the chance to listen to other pianists from all over the world. Today we have the internet, but in my day I didn’t have that chance to hear where I stood on the scale. But at a competition there was the chance to listen and think about whether I had a chance or not. It’s a platform, and I think that you have to take it for what it is and if you don’t want to it’s not the end of the world. You have to find another way out.

GT: Do you think competitions are a good thing in developing mental strength? Like sport, if you lose, you have to have self-belief that you are going to win next time.

AH: I do think that if you can get up and play in a competition then you can play in a concert, but a competition is much harder of course. It is good mental training; it is hard, but most of what we do is hard. I don’t think you should shy away from it, but there might be pianists who don’t have the temperament for it and in that case I don’t think they should be forced. If it makes them ill at the thought of going into a competition or whatever, then no, don’t do it. If it’s a performer who enjoys playing there shouldn’t be anything negative.

GT: The next question is regarding management; do you think that one needs luck in getting the right agent or manager to guide your career?

AH: The record contract was part of the prize and it was just for the one record, and it won an award back in 1986. Then I waited another nine years before making another record. Deutsche Grammophon actually said that they wouldn’t record me again, yet the artistic management were very happy with that record but didn’t know how to market me. If I got my name in the gutter press then they would [do another recording], but that wasn’t my style. So, I didn’t, and then I was on my own. Then I decided to record myself and took it to Hyperion who took me up. This was all without an agent. There was one Canadian agent after I won the big Bach prize, but still I worked incredibly hard myself, writing letters, and stuffing them in envelopes, and it wasn’t until 1995 that I could fill Wigmore Hall. I would write my envelopes myself and somebody would help me get a leaflet together, because I didn’t really have very good management. It’s a long story, but I’ve always done a lot myself. As a young musician you can’t wait for the phone to ring. If you have an agent you’ve got it, but there’s the other side of it where some big agent takes on a young musician who wins a prize or even if they don’t win a prize they take them on if they look good or they have a good name, and push them to death and take 10% of their world-wide income, market them to death. I think this is criminal as they don’t allow the artists to grow. You should be learning a lot of repertoire, you know.

GT: What do you think about the different piano schools – have you been influenced by any of them in particular?

AH:  Glenn Gould himself was himself; I think it’s very good to be a Canadian because you can’t be pigeon-holed. I think that it is all a bit blurred now and it all changed in my day. My influence is French: my teacher Jean-Paul Sévilla from Paris was my main piano teacher at the Ottawa Conservatoire. I was getting Paris Conservatoire training – he was fantastic and he passed on all his knowledge of the French repertoire. I wish I had recorded the lot. That was really wonderful and new, and I suppose that if I could put my finger on any school, it would be the French school. But I feel I am my own person and you can’t put me in any one school.

GT: Is there a composer who is closest to you?

AH: Yes, I think ever since the beginning. My father was a Cathedral organist and I heard Bach at home and on the organ. He was always present and I played his repertoire on every instrument, the violin, piano, harpsichord. Bach is the basis of my repertoire for which I am very grateful. I learnt articulation and phrasing from the very beginning and it was wonderful to get the right training from the age of three or four, and he has always been the most important composer in my repertoire. When I was a teenager I was known for playing Bach, and in particular for playing the bigger pieces like the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, the Chopin Études, the Chopin Concerto in E minor, which are still in my repertoire.

GT: You have been very successful as an interpreter of classical repertoire from Bach to Debussy and Ravel. Are you interested in performing new music?

AH: Yes, I am. I premiered two piano concertos written for me; a year ago I premiered here in Ottawa one by Canadian-Finnish composer Matthew Whittall called ‘Nameless Seas’ which is a great piece and I will play again. I also played another concerto in 2003 by Dominic Muldowney and in 2010 or 2012 I put something together for Boosey and Hawkes called Angela Hewitt’s Bach Book. I have commissioned several pieces, and I will be playing new pieces next year by Mark Simpson. I can’t do it all the time as I’ve got so much to do and it takes time, but I definitely take an interest in contemporary composers and play some when I can.

GT: Do you teach?

AH: I do a lot of masterclasses as I have been touring over thirty years, so I don’t give private lessons as I don’t have time. We do some as an option at my festival in Italy every year. I do give week-long masterclasses every few years and we work on a huge amount of repertoire for a week. But yes, I do a lot of masterclasses when I am travelling. I enjoy it, it’s important to help kids and pass on one’s knowledge, but I don’t have the time for regular teaching.

GT: How do you find the international piano circuit today?

AH: It’s not easy but I’m trained to do it. I need huge reserves of stamina, I need to look after myself and you have to be tough and to know what helps find that stamina and energy. You have to look after yourself on a daily basis, you have to enjoy it and I do. The travelling with the jet lag is of course the hardest part. I played this three-hour marathon [Bach Odyssey] – I played it in London one Friday, and went up to Cambridge on Saturday, then I had a car drive up to Sheffield and again I don’t usually play a recital two nights in a row, but I did. So after the Sheffield concert I got a car to Heathrow airport and after a few hours I was on a flight to Canada, so that was my weekend! That was pretty exhausting! That’s part of the job! After all these years of doing it, it still isn’t easy at all. It’s not glamorous, it’s very, very difficult. There is so much practice, I plan all my concerts, I plan all my festivals, I write my own CD notes, I do my own social media, I book all my own flights usually – it’s another job. I am busy [she laughs]!

GT: Is it true that musicians today look at perfecting their technique rather than their artistry?

AH: I think that the technical level compared to what it was [when I started] forty years ago has become really, much, much higher. What I might have been doing at 18, they are doing at 12 or 13. I don’t always think that this is good because kids are not physically formed enough at that age to be doing all these things like Rachmaninov’s Third [Concerto], or the Chopin Études. I find it just silly, but a lot of them are doing it. The technical level is so high, and with all these young pianists coming onto the market who can play all this stuff, it’s no longer like looking at an individual who is capable of paying the repertoire – personality and musical intelligence is always, I would say, in short supply. I am not sure that there are more personalities than there were when I started, there may be fewer because musical intelligence takes time to develop, based on so many things. It is still quite rare to find someone who has got something to say. But the technical levels have gone up for sure. It was amazing when I played The Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 and 2 in Hong Kong with an audience of 800 at each concert and the average age was about 16. All the kids were there, and they were following the score. We wouldn’t get that in Edinburgh would we? It’s amazing that so many are coming out of there. You know there are young people who are taking an interest.

GT: You are playing the Beethoven Emperor Concerto with the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra on your tour soon, is this work of particular importance to you?

AH: Well I was on tour with them a year and a half ago and they came to Edinburgh with a different soloist, but this time I am doing the whole tour, because last time I did the Beethoven Fourth [Concerto] and they wanted me to do the Emperor – as it went so well, they requested it. I started playing it about 1988 I think. I haven’t played it as much as No.4 or No.1 – I have played them all of course, so I last played it about a year and half ago and am really looking forward to this tour as sometimes you only play a concerto once or twice but here I will play it five times along with the two Bach concertos in Nottingham. It will be great to have so many goes at it, so I am looking forward to it. It’s great to play with an orchestra from Vienna where it was written, and the Tonkünstler Orchestra are a very good young orchestra, a very good mix of male and female musicians. They are very energetic which is good. I really enjoyed playing with them the last time.

GT: Are there other pianists you listen to? I was impressed by Richter’s playing of The Well-Tempered Clavier many years ago.

AH: I can’t stand his [Richter’s Bach], it’s awful, it’s terrible, like machine bullets, I’m sorry [laughs]! I just think the Russian school of Bach is not my favourite. I’m learning Beethoven’s Op.111, and other pieces, but am determined not to listen to anybody, just with the score in front of me which is enough really. Then afterwards I will go to a lot of concerts. When I am playing with an orchestra, I often sit in the second half, but often don’t want to hear Sibelius 5 six times! But still I think it’s important to go to live performances and see your colleagues play and to share the occasion as well.

GT: Thank you and we look forward to your concerts in Britain.

Gregor Tassie

Angela Hewitt (website click here) will be playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto at Edinburgh Usher Hall on 28th October. For more information click here.

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