Brahms and Schumann at Wigmore Hall

2010-04-09 / The Guardian / Martin Kettle

Angela Hewitt
Wigmore Hall, London

Angela Hewitt’s Schumann and Brahms recital felt like a very definite artistic statement. Don’t pigeonhole me as a woman who plays Bach, it seemed to say. Dare I confess to wondering beforehand how Hewitt’s signature cantabile sweep, which makes her Bach and Haydn so richly characterful, would translate to the craggy and sometimes even brutal physicality of early Brahms? If so, the answer was simply in the playing, which was often tremendous.

Hewitt offered intelligent programming: eight pieces from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter were followed by Brahms’s variations on the plaintive F sharp minor fourth piece from the Schumann set. Brahms’s testosterone charged the early E flat minor Scherzo, then set things up for the rigours of his five-movement sonata in F minor. A perfectly judged encore, Schumann’s intimate F sharp Romance, brought things full circle.

In the Schumann pieces, Hewitt and her preferred Fazioli piano took time to find their voice. But as the music grew darker, she asserted firm control. There was none of the winsomeness that some players look for in these pieces. The sombre shifts of the E flat minor Albumblatt were especially impressive.

Hewitt never allows her Brahms to linger – always a good rule. The variations, written in the turbulent aftermath of Schumann’s attempted suicide and Brahms’s growing feeling for Clara, were tender but severe.

Hewitt then launched both the Scherzo and sonata with the terrific attack these pieces demand. But it was in the lyrical ardour of some of Brahms’s second subjects, and the andante second movement of the sonata, that she reached real heights. The beautifully sustained andante, which seems to slip in and out of the harmonic world of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, was the highlight of the evening. Truly a woman who can play Brahms, too.