International Piano Series, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

2003-11-07 / Daily Telegraph / Geoffrey Norris

London, England

The paramount quality of Angela Hewitt’s piano playing is the joy it communicates. Underpinning it there is incontrovertible intellectual rigour; and there are great reserves of wisdom and technical finesse. But the thing that came across so strongly in this substantial recital was that she has an ability to seize upon the distinguishing traits of a piece of music, conceive them carefully in terms of the piano, and then, most importantly, interpret them in a way that speaks with candour, freshness and animation.

For this programme she chose one composer who actually wrote for the piano (Ravel), and two who did not (Couperin and Bach). Hewitt, while casting her repertoire net fairly wide, has become specially known for her work in Baroque music, using the piano for pieces written long before it was invented. Purists will always cavil, just as there are unquestionably those, including the capacity audience for this recital, who appreciate the different expressive possibilities that a piano can have when compared with a harpsichord.

These days, when we are confronted with such sensitive Bach pianists as Andras Schiff, Piotr Anderszewski or Murray Perahia, we tend not to wring our hands so anxiously and worry whether we should really be enjoying listening to Baroque music on a modern Steinway, or, as in Hewitt’s case, a Fazioli. Hewitt makes her own strong, musical case, and it was a nice gesture of hers to play an encore from decades ago that served as a reminder that Bach on the piano is certainly nothing new, the famous transcription of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Dame Myra Hess.

Hewitt began with eight pieces by Couperin, which, paired with Ravel’s Miroirs, revealed her capacity for crystallising a particular musical mood with lucid immediacy, panache and lustrous tone.

Her Bach was the epic Goldberg Variations, in which the piano, with its single keyboard, poses problems of execution in music written for a two-manual harpsichord.

But, as Hewitt pointed out in her interview on these pages on Monday, the potential for contrasts of colouring are much greater. Allied to the terrific clarity and verve that she brought to the quick, lithe variations, there was a luminous glow to her timbre in the softer ones, with subtle, telling inflections when the same music was repeated.

It was a performance at once rich in variety and absorbing in its structural and emotional impact.