Recital Angela Hewitt; Wigmore Hall

2002-01-16 / The Times, London / Richard Morrison

Wigmore Hall

ALTHOUGH Angela Hewitt has graced the international scene for nearly two decades, her stylish playing long seemed one of classical music’s best-kept secrets. But what’s this? Standing room only at the Wiggy, on a Monday lunchtime? Word about the Canadian pianist must finally have slipped out. Either that or the sandwich shops in the West End have gone on strike.

Let’s assume the former. It’s good news. It means that music lovers have good taste. Hewitt relies not on pounding the keys, nor on churning out semiquavers like a demented sewing-machine, nor on an angst-ridden demeanour, but on intelligence, subtlety and craftsmanship.

Hers are small-scale triumphs, but triumphs nevertheless: of humility, for one thing. She gives the impression that she would rather die than audaciously interpose some private quirk of her own between the composer’s pen and our ears. And although her technique is clearly formidable — the soaring flourishes of Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor, K396, were delivered with insouciant ease — she generally prefers to conceal her guile rather than flaunt it.

Bach is her special domain. So comparisons with her great compatriot, Glenn Gould, are inevitable, but pretty pointless. Gould found things in Bach’s keyboard music — twilight sonorities; hidden echoes deep in the texture — that nobody else has ever revealed.

Hewitt lacks that genius for fantastical caprice, but she lays out the music with shining clarity. Her sparkling performance of the Toccata in C minor, BWV911, was like some dinner-party conversation in a perfect world, in which everyone has something witty to say, and guests courteously make way for each other’s point of view.

If she has a failing, it is that this very reasonableness sometimes appears to inhibit her emotional range. There were points in the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata, for instance, when she summoned up impressive reserves of tonal grandeur, and the music seemed on the verge of surging into unknown regions. But just as she reached the brink of danger, she would pull back into the safety of serenity, as though some inner voice was counselling caution.

A pity, because she then executed the whimsical crunches and whispers of the scherzo with great flair, and sped through the finale in high glee. I would gladly spend another lunchtime in such civilised company. And, happily, I can: Radio 3 broadcasts the recital at 1pm on Sunday.