Bach with the Basel Chamber Orchestra

2010-05-21 / The Times, London / Richard Morrison

Basle Chamber Orchestra/Hewitt at the Wigmore Hall

The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt uses a grand piano to take her audience back to a time of elegant precision

Listening to Angela Hewitt play Bach is like stepping back into a more elegant age. It’s not so much that the Canadian uses a grand piano in a world where such “anachronisms” are sneered out of existence. That’s daring enough, though perfectly justified to play music (in this case three keyboard concertos) that Bach himself merrily switched from instrument to instrument.

No, it’s more that the manner of her playing takes us back to a time when instrumentalists felt that every phrase should be given its own shape, colour and distinct place in the world. There are no stray details, awkward corners or unwise tempos in a Hewitt concert. Everything has been pondered and perfectly placed. And the execution is as pristine as the conception. In this delightful concert, that was equally true of her companions: the impeccable Basle Chamber Orchestra — all 18 of them crowding round Hewitt’s Fazioli.

Spontaneity isn’t her strongest suit. Little is left to chance or on-the-night whimsy. But that’s not to say that her playing lacks passion. To hear her build her epic crescendo in the D Minor Concerto’s first movement might have been like seeing a flash of anger from a mother superior, but it was all the more powerful for being unexpected. And her light-fingered passagework was as witty as anything from the more wilful hands of her compatriot and most influential predecessor, Glenn Gould.

No wonder that she now packs the Wigmore with ecstatic admirers. Aptly, they also heard string pieces by another musician who worshipped at Bach’s shrine: Frank Martin, the 20th-century Swiss composer. I loved his nobly melancholic Pavane couleur du temps, but could hardly wait for his uneventful Etudes for String Orchestra to end. Pity, because the jazzy pizzicato study offered a tantalising glimpse of what Martin could have done if he had let his hair down more often.