United Kingdom Waterloo Festival  – Couperin and Brahms: Angela Hewitt (piano). St John’s, Waterloo, London, 27.5.2021. (MB)
Couperin – Pièces de clavecin, Book III: 18e Ordre
Brahms – Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5
Taking as its theme the fifteenth-century English word, ‘respair’, the recovery of hope following a period of despair, the 2021 Waterloo Festival offers much of that desperately sought-after quality, not least the return of Anthony Friend’s Spotlight Chamber Concerts series, so cruelly cut short last December. Twice postponed, a recital by Angela Hewitt, originally conceived as a farewell to Beethoven Year (‘Geh, Hoffnung’) now offered music by Couperin and Brahms to a socially distanced audience of about 150 people. That in itself surely offered grounds for respair.
To the uninitiated, Couperin and Brahms might seem a strange combination. Brahms was of course a crucial figure in the nineteenth-century revival of early music. He knew Bach’s cantatas intimately; it would be difficult to overstate the importance of Bach’s music for his own. Handel loomed large too: Brahms provided written out continuo parts (on piano) for an entire volume of Handel’s Italian duets and trios, gave the Vienna premiere of Saul in 1873, and the German Requiem speaks for itself. Brahms’s work with older German masters such as Isaac, Schütz, and Buxtehude likewise informed both concert life and his own writing. Brahms’s political nationalism—whatever some may tell you, far less tenuous than Wagner’s—notwithstanding, his musical inclinations were more generous. Advocacy for the keyboard music of Couperin, both as pianist and as ‘editor’ (it seems Friedrich Chrysander did much of the hard work in Brahms’s name), was, if more surprising, no less genuine. Clara Schumann declared herself baffled by Brahms’s interest in something that was ‘really of little interest musically’, yet Elaine Kelly makes a persuasive case for influence on some of Brahms’s later piano music. The Third Piano Sonata does not, of course, fall into that category. And whilst it would doubtless be fascinating to hear an attempted recreation, or at least reimagination, of Brahms’s performing style for Couperin, this was not attempted here. Nor, however, was this one of those perverse attempts to have the piano sound like the harpsichord. (Clue: it never will. If you want the harpsichord, play or listen to the harpsichord.)
Here we heard the 1722 eighteenth ordre, finally balanced between F major and minor—and thus preparing the way for the tonality of Brahms’s sonata. The opening allemande, ‘La Verneüil’ spoke with an occluded freedom very much of our moment. In Hewitt’s hands, it rightly took its time, but it (or rather she) knew where it was heading: respair, one might say. ‘La Verneüilléte’, presumably presenting the daughter of the previously evoked Duke of Bourbon, offered a more wilful obstinacy—make of that what you will—born of, yet extending beyond, its courtly idiom. In the rich melancholy of ‘Sœur Monique’, the acoustic vibration of Couperin’s ornaments in Francis Bedford’s church, proved part and parcel of its magic. Indeed as so often, ‘ornaments’ seemed quite the wrong word. ‘Le turbulent’, bright and busy, and the necessary contrast of ‘L’atendrissante’, all the more lugubrious on the piano, led to a delightful, dexterous musical box of a performance for the celebrated ‘Le tic-toc-choc’. There was finally an almost childlike delight to be had in the boisterous obstinacy, allied to that of ‘La Verneüilléte’, yet unquestionably different in character, in ‘Le gaillard-boiteux’.
Hand on heart, I am yet to be won over by any of Brahms’s three piano sonatas, all of them early works. Never say never, though, and it is quite possible that this performance will have edged me a little closer. There was no denying the captivating quality to the first movement’s contrast: tumultuous opening, soon scaled down to prophetic half-lights—far from solely the province of the composer’s late years—in a dialectic of tragic virtuosity. Hewitt captured well the Classicism with which the young composer already distinguished himself from Schumann: more than mere framing, though certainly that too. The ‘Andante espressivo’, to my ears more ingratiating, was sung without sentimentality and with clear direction, reflexively exulting in its material possibilities. If the Scherzo is giant, it is not elephantine; it sounded as serious, yet not so grim, as Chopin’s scherzi, in a reading plentiful in chiaroscuro. We heard more of the notes than there is any reasonable ground to expect. The pathos of a young Romantic already somewhat out of his time was readily, winningly apparent in the Intermezzo. The finale showed debts to Beethoven and Schumann if not settled then at least recognised and addressed.
For like so much else right now, they offer but a starting point, the future more uncertain than ever. In that spirit, Hewitt’s encore reignited our immanent sense of respair. Mary Howe’s transcription of Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze’ proved, perhaps inevitably, the most immediately moving music of all. Possessed both of dignity and of a freedom that comes of abiding acquaintance, it felt like meeting an old friend in fine new clothes. Where Bach remains, all is not lost.