Recital in Boston

2011-12-06 / Boston Globe / David Weininger

Hewitt interprets Bach incomparably on her own

Pianist Angela Hewitt is Canadian, and she plays a lot of Bach. As her career was developing, people naturally – if somewhat facilely – began comparing her to her fellow Canadian the late Glenn Gould. Apparently, this happened often enough that she grew irritated at having to deny that the famously eccentric Gould had had any influence on her playing.

No one who heard the slow, languid opening of Bach’s French Suite No. 4 on Friday (Hewitt’s second recital to be presented by Celebrity Series of Boston) would have found any similarity between the two artists. Yet the contrasts are illuminating.

Where Gould’s Bach was dry and linear, with almost microscopic attention to single voices, Hewitt plays with a softer, gentler touch and an almost luxurious legato. If Bach’s counterpoint is not quite as lucid as it is in Gould, Hewitt comes close, thanks to the scrupulous balance between her left and right hands. Where Gould’s Bach is gravitational, moving inexorably toward its goal, Hewitt’s floats more gracefully above the ground.

The point is that Hewitt’s musicianship is, and has for some time been, very much her own. And that was what made the Jordan Hall recital so rewarding. Half of it was devoted to Bach, French Suites 4-6. They were artfully paced and phrased, delicate but unmannered. What was most rewarding was a sense that Bach played on the piano could not only be clear but also sound unapologetically beautiful. The Sarabandes of each suite were transfixing.

Interwoven with the Bach were three pieces by Debussy, a composer for whom aural beauty is part and parcel of the work. Here Hewitt was even more convincing. She commanded a complete sonic palette from the keyboard, the coloring full-bodied and robust. The “Suite bergamasque’’ was richly textured, especially “Clair de lune,’’ which sounded more like a passionate love song from some unwritten opera than a gauzy moonlit scene.

“Pour le piano’’ was swift and exhilarating, its shading stripped down to make the piece sound fresh, dissonant, and unusually forward-looking. Much the same could be said of “L’isle joyeuse,’’ a notoriously difficult work that Hewitt brought off with what seemed to be relatively little effort. That brought her program to a thrilling close. She offered one encore, a good-natured trip through Debussy’s “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk.’’