Recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

2007-02-17 / New York Times / Bernard Holland

An Instant Link From Head and Heart to Fingertips

What draws the listener to Angela Hewitt, who played Rameau, Beethoven and Schumann at the Metropolitan Museum on Thursday evening, has to do with contact. Most piano performances arrive in translation: the inner musician making a decision, then issuing a command that makes its way through the body onto the keyboard and into the ear. The process alters the results.
Ms. Hewitt is one of those rare musicians who seem to get something into their heads and hearts and find it at their fingertips instantaneously. To fuel this leap must require a fund of psychic energy beyond the average capacity. Good musicians are good athletes, not in the muscular sense but in the staying power of their imaginations. This pianist’s resolve to imbue every musical moment with an unrelenting sense of theater would exhaust most of us in 10 minutes.
There is a saying among musicians that you cannot make sounds you cannot first imagine, and Ms. Hewitt imagines Rameau’s A minor Suite, with its famous Gavotte and variations at the end, with elegance, detail and all the shadings the modern piano allows. Rameau wrote for the rigid dynamics of the harpsichord, but he heard daily other instruments perfectly capable of swelling and diminishing. The transfer to the piano is mainly a crowding problem: two hands operating in the close quarters of one keyboard rather than on the harpsichord’s two.
Ms. Hewitt’s Beethoven was the early C major Sonata (Op. 2, No. 3). The opening Allegro con brio, a comic masterpiece, was acted out vividly. If the other three movements don’t quite meet its standards, this is still major Beethoven. Don’t trust the usual story of a promising post-Haydn embryo growing gradually into Beethoven the Mighty. The C major Sonata says goodbye to Haydn and Mozart in a single flourish; it is completely original. Beethoven didn’t get better; he got different.
Maybe I am transferring my own lack of engagement with the first of Schumann’s piano sonatas to what I heard after intermission, but I don’t think that this is Ms. Hewitt’s piece. It is not too big for her. In one sense, it is too small. There are magical moments between the virtuoso tricks and rhetorical bluster, and it is hard to blame Schumann’s uncharacteristic and, to my mind, unfulfilling overstatement on inexperience, given that “Carnaval” belongs to the same years. The word “sonata” terrified every 19th-century composer compelled to follow Beethoven’s tracks. Brahms, Grieg: they all wrote pieces like this.