Recital in Minneapolis

2005-04-05 / Minneapolis Star Tribune / Larry Fuchsberg

Pianist puts her own stamp on Bach and Couperin

Per the conventional wisdom, a piano recital that shuns the romantic repertory is box-office poison. Yet for her Chopin Society program Sunday at Macalester College, the remarkable Angela Hewitt leapfrogged not only the 19th century but the latter half of the 18th — and packed the hall.

The sylph-like Hewitt acknowledges applause with a wide, toothy smile, but her program choices reflect a steely determination to have a career on her own terms. Yes, she also plays Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. But her heart (if not her instrument) evidently belongs to late baroque — and to Bach above all.

Two singular works of Bach shared the first half of Sunday’s program. In the D-Minor Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Hewitt captured both the drama of the opening and the daring of the famous recitative. In the half-hour French Overture, dynamic contrasts and tone colors grew from within the music; ornaments were animating, not pedantic. The piece, its roots in the dance made clear, was neither undercharacterized nor oversold. Here it is,” Hewitt seemed to say, rather than the too-frequent “This is how it goes,” with its undercurrent of ax-grinding.

It’s curious that Canada, not generally regarded as a musical heavyweight, has given us the two great Bach pianists of the past half-century: Hewitt and Glenn Gould. They could hardly differ more. Though certain of Gould’s discs retain an almost revelatory force, his sometimes extreme tempos and percussive staccato (to say nothing of his humming) can be trying. I suspect that Hewitt’s less idiosyncratic readings, richer in sonority, will age more gracefully. In any case, we are lucky to have both. Clearly our northern neighbors have more going for them than cheap prescription drugs.

If Hewitt has been most closely identified with Bach, she’s no one-trick pony. Through recordings, she has sparked a revival of François Couperin’s keyboard music, a body of work Bach himself admired. Scholars may squirm at hearing these pieces realized on a modern piano — on this occasion a striking Steinway, vintage 1881, meticulously restored by Joel Lidstrom of Caledonia, Minn. — but most listeners, this one included, have no such qualms.

Hewitt’s extraordinarily poised account of Couperin’s 13th Order (a fancy name for a suite) encompassed both gaiety in the carnivalesque fourth movement and grief in the austere fifth. Here especially, the pianist appeared to enjoy her own playing — a condition not nearly as common as one would wish.

“Couperin’s Tomb,” one of Maurice Ravel’s evocative homages to his musical forebears, made a fitting close. If the piano’s sound grew a bit hard at times, Hewitt’s playing had a marvelous fluidity, and her encore, Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” was bewitching.”