Hewitt’s key to success

2003-05-16 / The Age, Melbourne

Australian Chamber Orchestra (Australia Tour)

Angela Hewitt was waiting to get off a flight from Canada to Heathrow when she heard one of her piano recordings being played on the muzak system. Everyone was tired and impatient to leave the plane. But, as the music continued, she noticed a change in the atmosphere.
“Everyone went very quiet and didn’t talk,” she says. “They went quite still, which was nice.”
And now, as she tours Australia with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, playing the music of Bach and sons, it has been announced that the Canadian pianist has won the BBC Radio 3 Listeners Award – a fantastic honour considering the quality of her competitors: Sir Colin Davis, the pianist Mitzuko Uchida, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor Sir Simon Rattle and violinist Maxim Vengerov.
Although she won it for her performance of Dominic Muldowney’s second piano concerto, written especially for her, Hewitt’s “distinctive performances of the music of Bach” was also taken into account.
Hewitt, 44, is on the last stretch of a 10-year odyssey to record all the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach on the piano. Each recording has been critically acclaimed.
As a little girl, Hewitt studied dance with a teacher from the Ballet Russes. She believes this was “the most wonderful training for what I do now”, because it gave her good posture and stamina, vital to her ability to play the most demanding music ever written for the keyboard. But, apart from her teacher, Jean-Paul Sevilla, at the University of Ottawa, her most important influence was her father, famous as the organist of Ottawa Cathedral. He taught her about the drama of Bach, and of not being afraid to express all the emotional colours in each work.
Hewitt won the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition with Olivier Messiaen on the jury, and, in the same year, made London her base. Now she performs in Canada five or six times a year. Hewitt never doubted the rightness of the piano for Bach.
“The piano has the capability of singing. Bach saw one of the first pianos at the very end of his life, but he thought the action was too stiff and the top was not bright enough. I think, had he seen a later model or especially the wonderful modern piano, I think he would have been delighted because his music is written for voice, violin and oboe, which can shape everything. He just didn’t have the right keyboard at the time.”
Performing all Bach keyboard works by memory is a phenomenal achievement.
“It’s much easier to play Liszt from memory than two lines of Bach. It’s all the voices, and harmonically it’s shifting all the time. If you put one finger off the rails, you are completely lost, and it’s very hard to invent Bach!”
At about the same time as she began her Bach project, Hewitt helped to found Piano Six, which has involved her and five other Canadian pianists travelling to rural and remote communities to perform.
“Now we’re handing it over to some younger artists,” she says. “We have to make sure the audience is still here in 20 years’ time.”
Her work – for which she has received the Key to the City of Ottawa and the Governor-General’s Award and been made an Officer of the Order of Canada – is so involving that Hewitt chose not to have children.
“I always say I couldn’t have learnt the complete works of Bach and have had even one child. You have to have that space, especially learning Bach.
“You can’t have a cluttered mind. You have to have that intensity of solitude. My friends know that, if I am learning a new piece of Bach, they leave me alone. I don’t have any regrets. I am really very happy with my life.”
Her main companion is her Fazioli, a modern Italian piano and the most expensive in the world. She is about to buy another for her new house, which is being built in Umbria in Italy.
Hewitt is considering recording the 550 Scarlatti sonatas – the harpsichordist Scott Ross achieved this amazing feat, and died soon afterwards – but, so far, no pianist has done it.
“I must be serious because I went and bought them all for £1000 ($2484) a few months ago. It would be interesting.”
Meanwhile, she is completely occupied with recording Couperin’s keyboard works, maybe all of Chabrier’s keyboard works, and the final recordings of Bach.
Perhaps the greatest compliment she has received for her Bach recordings came from her father, then blind. After listening to her Well-Tempered Clavier, he told her:
“When I listened to you playing that, I didn’t hear you. I only heard Bach.”
It was the best indication Hewitt had ever had that she was doing everything right.