Brahms and Schumann at Wigmore Hall

2010-04-09 / The Times, London / Hilary Finch

Angela Hewitt at Wigmore Hall, London

There were two resonant stage presences at the Wigmore on Wednesday: the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, on a rare visit; and a gleaming Fazioli grand, ousting the resident Steinway at Hewitt’s request.

The voice of the Fazioli piano takes a little getting used to. It can seem dry and unyielding at first, without the warmth or fullness of tone of either a Steinway or its sweet-voiced cousin, the Bösendorfer. But when the ears become accustomed to it, the brilliance, clarity and sheer power of this piano become apparent.

Hewitt’s recital set out to unveil, without self-consciousness or sentiment, the emotional and musical relationship between Schumann and the younger Brahms. To point this up, Hewitt began with five pieces from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter — a poetically punning collection of brightly variegated “leaves”. Their volatile moods fluttered up from the keys. And the shy, sad song of the penultimate piece was to become transformed by Brahms in Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann.

Fifteen variations, no less, all written at the age of 20, in anguished response to Schumann’s suicide attempt of 1854. The song would dip and fall behind high, bright descants, dance skittishly in the left hand, spring into agitated syncopations and circle round in dream. At times I missed a bloom and warmth in the inner voices, but Hewitt and the Fazioli certainly re-created the music’s mix of anguish and ardour.

After a flinty, fiery performance of the 18-year-old Brahms’s Scherzo in E flat minor, Hewitt turned to the great F minor Sonata: five movements of a prodigious 20-year-old’s response to all that his ears had heard and his heart had known. Hewitt, keeping a formidable intellectual and physical grip on the sonata’s form and direction, set up a thrilling ebb and flow of expressive power. She seemed to take exuberant pleasure in a youthful energy that at any time could draw back into itself, and which was stilled into two disarmingly nonchalant yet ambivalent and shadowy slow movements.