Recital in Ottawa

2007-07-24 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Todd

A splendid performance by a truly great pianist

Some say that Angela Hewitt is the Bach pianist of our time, but her program last night at Dominion-Chalmers did not include any of that composer’s music. She has been demonstrating the last few years that she can excel in just about any corner of the repertoire and last night she started off with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in E minor.

Rameau was an almost exact contemporary of Bach, and the two composers’ suites resemble each other in that they are made up of various baroque dances, often of French inspiration. The resemblance doesn’t go much further than that, though. Instead of the subtlety and spiritual depth of Bach’s best keyboard music, Rameau provides elegance, ingenuity and charm.

These qualities, as Hewitt proved, are nothing to sniff at. Indeed, she left no doubt that she was playing great music. Just moments into the opening Allemande, time seemed to stop (a delightful if potentially dangerous phenomenon for someone reviewing to deadline.) The beauty she found in the music and the imagination she used in expressing it was awe-inspiring.

Next she played Beethoven’s Sonata no. 8 in C minor, the Pathetique. She has been recording the composer’s sonatas over the past two years or so and, as with most things, she makes us hear them anew, but without taking significant liberties with them.

Once again, time stopped. Every phrase, every nuance, every gesture fit perfectly in the world she and the composer brought forth. Most of us have heard this sonata more times than we can count, but there was a transcendent excellence to last night’s rendition that set it entirely apart.

From the grave and lofty opening, through the excitement of the following Allegro and the optimistic nobility of the slow movement to the thrilling finale, this performance will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the finest of this year’s festival.

But it will face stiff competition from the piece with which Hewitt concluded the program, Schumann’s Sonata no. 1 in F-sharp minor. Not as well known as the Beethoven, this is a work of consummate musical and pianistic invention by one of the greatest of keyboard composers.

You will have guessed by now that I found the performance beyond praise. What might the composer have thought of it if he could have been in the audience? He would have heard an instrument that represents the highest evolution of the modern piano that was emerging in his day.

He would have heard his symphonically proportioned sonata played on it by one of the greatest pianists of modern times.

I think he would have been happy and that of the more than 800 people who filled Dominion-Chalmers last night he would have been the first to jump to his feet applauding when it was over.