Works that mean the most to me

2002-01-05 / Angela’s archive / Angela Hewitt

Works that mean the most to me:

J.S. BACH: The Goldberg Variations

Of all the works in my repertoire, I think the Goldberg Variations means the most to me. I was only sixteen when my teacher, Jean-Paul Sévilla, decided I should learn it. I heard him say not long ago, “Many young pianists have the fingers needed to play it, but not many have the brains.” I began it in October 1974, performing it for the first time five months later at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, Canada, where my father was organist. Later that year, I entered the Bach Competition in Washington, D.C. where it was the test piece. During the whole competition, a screen was placed in the middle of the stage, with the piano on one side and the three judges on the other; so the audience could see who was playing, but not the jury. They were surprised when they realized they had given a top prize to someone so young! It has remained in my repertoire ever since, going through as many transformations as has my own playing and personality. That is one of the wonderful things with Bach—there is certainly no single way to play it! I have lectured on it, recorded it, written CD notes about it, and spent more hours in its company than practically any other piece in my repertoire, but never do I tire of it. As a performance piece, it has the power to move people in a very special way: many listeners speak of it being a “spiritual experience”. It is a perfect work of art that, at least momentarily, makes us feel complete.

J.S. BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier

Of course there are composers other than Bach, but I couldn’t possibly leave out his Well-Tempered Clavier. Again it has occupied a huge part of my life, and certainly has been (and probably will remain) the biggest challenge of my life. The amazing variety that is there to discover, the endless invention in the fugues, how he combines the dance element with the formal structures—all of that gives constant satisfaction to those who spend time playing or just listening to this music. Performing the entire cycle in public from memory as I have done now many times is a huge endurance test, and one which I know I will put myself through time and time again, hoping always to improve on what I’ve done before. If I were to take it to a desert island, and not have a piano with me, I would be happy just sitting there, re-working it from the score—as indeed I have done already on many airplanes! There is no better way to memorize than being away from the piano, visualizing all your fingerings!

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466

I have to include one of the Mozart Concertos, and, although I love them all, the D minor occupies a special place in my heart. It was one of the first concertos I learned (as a teenager I performed it with my father doing the orchestra part on the organ!), and I love its tension and drama—at first held back, but then exploding in the wonderful finale. There are few piano concertos, in my opinion, that have such a transforming effect on heart and mind—its vision is tragic, yet the change to the major at the end is, in a good performance, totally overwhelming. It always gives me the goose-bumps. Not many people realize that when a soloist is booked with an orchestra, they are not often given the choice of which concerto to play. Last year, when I made my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I was allowed to do so, and that is what I chose.

RAVEL: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales

I love French music, and have always played a lot of it. I lived in Paris from 1978-1985, during which time I learned pieces by Ravel, Debussy, Roussel, Fauré, Dukas, Messiaen, Honegger, and Chabrier. I first performed the complete solo works of Ravel in 1987 in London’s Wigmore Hall. Last year I realized another of my dreams (the Bach cycle being one!), and recorded it all for Hyperion. It is totally different from Bach (more like a cross between Mozart and Liszt), but demands great clarity, presence of mind, and imagination. The Valses Nobles et Sentimentales was evidently Ravel’s favourite among his piano works, and I don’t blame him. Having also been a dancer in my early years, I love anything inspired by the dance, and the subtleties of rhythm and accentuation in this piece are a delight.

SCHUMANN-LISZT: Widmung (Dedication)

All music is really song and/or dance: this piece is pure song. It is unbeatable as an encore and always has everyone in tears—including me! The beautiful original by Schumann (a love song for Clara), is given the full treatment by Liszt, done with such panache that it totally carries you away! The text is also wonderful, “Du meine Seele, du mein Herz…”, and should be sung by the pianist while playing (silently, of course!) to get the right inflexion. As Berlioz said: “Music and love—why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.”