Recital in London’s Royal Festival Hall

2011-03-29 / Orpheus Complex / Gavin Dixon

Angela Hewitt’s demeanour seems at odds with the scale of a Festival Hall solo recital. She modestly takes the stage but is greeted with a rock star welcome, and her graceful relationship with the piano keyboard seems more appropriate to the drawing room than the concert hall. She is a professional, of course, so she is more than capable of living up to the star billing. She is also able to project right tot the back of the hall, while giving everybody present the feeling she is playing just for them.

The programme was well chosen to play to her strengths, particularly that combination she achieves of simplicity of style combined with depth of emotion. That comes across best in the fast contrapuntal music that looks mechanical on paper but which she can mould through infinitely subtle dynamic gradation. The Gigue from the Bach 1st Partita is a case in point, as is the finale of the Eroica Variations and just about everything in the Handel 8th Suite. The programme does two of the composers – Beethoven and Brahms – fewer favours, and they both have far better works to their names, although something tells me their reputations are unlikely to suffer.

For listeners like myself who automatically associate the Bach Partitas with the almost neurotic interpretations of Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt is a breath of fresh air. For Hewitt, the elegance of the music’s surface is just as important as what lies beneath. That’s not to say that there is no depth here, but rather that she doesn’t need to introduce any angst into this music to give it its full emotional impact. Given the clarity of line that typifies her Bach, her playing style is often surprisingly legato. She often gives the impression that her brain is half a beat or so ahead of her hands by making it seem like she is rushing scale or sequence passages. It’s all an illusion though; everything is exactly on the beat.

The artistic integrity of Hewitt’s approach is demonstrated by the fact that nobody every questions her ambivalence to historical performance practice issues. Her Bach and Handel interpretations rely heavily on long hairpins, which in music written for the harpsichord is absurd. There is plenty of pedalling here too. And then in the Beethoven and Brahms, we are presented with dainty and elegant performances of music by composer/pianists who were anything but. None of this matters, of course, in fact, it only goes to strengthen her Bach. It is an unwritten rule that as a pianist you have to mould Bach’s music into your own image, so the more liberties Hewitt takes the stronger her readings become.

Even so, her style is all about subtlety. In the Brahms and the Beethoven, you often get the feeling that the composers are relying on simple oppositions of dynamic or tempo between successive variations to articulate the form. But Hewitt won’t let then off that lightly, and insists on continuity across longer spans. This allows her to build up to fairly dramatic climaxes, or wind down to wonderfully tranquil interludes, yet without resorting to extreme dynamics at either end of the spectrum.

She and her Fazioli piano make a great pairing. Where did the RFH get that piano ? I’m sure they usually have a Steinway. Perhaps she brought it with her. It’s not as strident as the Steinway though, and it responds beautifully to her touch. Up till tonight, I’d only been familiar with Hewitt’s work through recordings, but it is a real delight to watch her fingers literally dancing across the keys. And that playful touch, combined with the roundness of the piano’s tone, adds up to a sound that both Beethoven and Brahms would probably have related to, a sound reminiscent of the more intimate voicings of Viennese pianos of the mid 19th century.

Great as Hewitt’s Bach undoubtedly is, the real revelation of this recital for me was the Handel 8th Suite. Handel’s Italian counterpoint is even more closely matched to Hewitt’s style than Bach’s more Gothic constructions. In the Handel, each of the melodic lines always has a light, melodic feel, and Hewitt is able to make each of them sing, even with three or four voices going on at once. This too is music that a pianist must mould in their own style, and as with the Bach, Hewitt uses every trick in the book: pedalling, gradual dynamic shifts, lingering cadential cadences. But it is done with such subtlety and taste that it is difficult to find fault.

A wonderful concert and a life affirming experience. Angela Hewitt is justly famous for her impressive catalogue of recordings, but live she is even better still.