Recital for the Cleveland Orchestra

2003-02-19 / The Plain Dealer / Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Orchestra Recital

Pianist’s artful touch makes daring duo of Bach, Messiaen

Music by Bach and Messiaen are often performed side by side in organ recitals. But the Baroque giant and the 20th-century French master are rarely paired in piano recitals.

So unusual was pianist Angela Hewitt’s program Monday night at Reinberger Chamber Hall that she felt compelled to explain her repertoire, which consisted of Messiaen’s Preludes and Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

The two composers were both organists, improvisers and deeply religious artists who dedicated their music to the glory of God, she told an audience that included Pierre Boulez, one of Messiaen’s most renowned pupils and guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. Hewitt also spoke softly about Messiaen’s childhood, and she discussed specific musical materials in several of the preludes.

The mini-lecture was unnecessary, however, since Messiaen’s music spoke clearly for itself in Hewitt’s ravishing performance. Written in 1928-29, when the composer was a 20-year-old student at the Paris Conservatoire, the eight pieces follow the tradition of Debussy’s Preludes with techniques that exploit the tonal beauty of the piano and poetic titles, such as Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu (“Bells of anguish and tears of farewell”) and Un reflet dans le vent (“A Reflection in the Wind”).

Despite the influence of Debussy, Messiaen had already found his own distinctive voice, expressed through “modes of limited transposition” that took him away from traditional harmony and thrust him into his own ecstatic world of streaming chords and ringing sonorities.

In La colombe (“The Dove”), the composer showed an interest in the birdsongs that would become a lifelong obsession. In Instants defunts (“Defunct Moments”), he achieved the sense of stillness that permeates some of his later music.

Hewitt played the pieces with strong technique and exquisite sensitivity to resonance, tone color and dynamic shading. She used the pedal expressively and allowed the strings to ring like organ pipes in a great cathedral.

As wonderful as her performance was, however, it paled in comparison to her transcendent interpretation of Bach.

Since winning the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition in 1985, Hewitt has been closely associated with Bach’s music. She gives lecture-recitals devoted to the composer, and she is in the midst of a 10-year project to record all of Bach’s major works for keyboard.

Her playing of the “Goldberg” Variations was a model of impeccable taste, innate musicianship and inspired artistry. Though Bach wrote the serene aria and 30 variations for a two-manual harpsichord, Hewitt found a way to play all the notes on one keyboard and to make the music sound as if it had been conceived for the modern piano.

Employing a variety of touches and a wide range of dynamics, she etched contrapuntal voices with clarity, shaped ornaments with delicacy, brought out the expressiveness of chromatic passages and ripped into dotted rhythms with gusto.

The performance was so fascinating that it brought to mind the reason the variations were nicknamed for Goldberg, the Bach pupil who played the harpsichord late at night for his insomniac employer.

The point was not to lull the restless nobleman to sleep but rather to give him something calming and ingenious to contemplate. The audience responded to Hewitt’s imaginative artistry with a standing ovation, and she offered an encore: a flowing arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Cantata 147.