Recital in Ottawa

2009-11-19 / The Strad / Christopher Moore

National Arts Centre
Angela Hewitt, piano
November 17, 2009

Let’s be honest. So ubiquitous have they become, it is hardly surprising to witness standing ovations at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall. Angela Hewitt, Ottawa’s native-born pianist sensation, fully deserved the one her home-town admirers offered her on Tuesday night following a demanding solo recital of major works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Beethoven. But considering that she was playing for an a priori sympathetic audience, I was surprised by the lukewarm reception – standing ovation aside – her performances elicited throughout the course of the evening. After all, her appearance generated such excitement that organizers added extra seats so close to the stage that some listeners were practically in arm’s reach of Hewitt’s piano.

And yes, it truly was Hewitt’s piano, or at least the brand of piano with which she has been associated for a number of years, that graced centre stage. Flouting convention, Hewitt is one of a few major touring artists who have become associated with piano manufacturer Fazioli, famous for its artisanal methods and exacting technical standards. The instrument certainly had commanding presence. Throw together a few hundred gold-coated tuning pins, a gold-lacquered iron frame and a soundboard fashioned from rare Italian red spruce. Add light. The result is a piano fetishist’s version of ecstasy.

A piano, however, much like a book, cannot be judged solely by its alluring cover. And perhaps the somewhat cavernous Southam Hall, with its jumpy acoustics, was not the easiest venue for Hewitt to showcase her instrument’s hidden treasures. Throughout her recital there was a tendency for the sound to converge muddily in the middle register; high notes could sound wooden as opposed to limpid, and the bass, when emphasized for structural and dramatic purposes, at times lacked resonance. Dynamic contrasts, such an integral component of Beethoven’s tempestuous Sonata No. 23 (Appassionata), which closed the second half of her program, did not carry particularly well, though there could be no doubt that Hewitt was giving it her all to ramp up the volume.

Hewitt has devoted much of her career to performing and recording the works of Bach and as a result has developed an undeniable mastery in clearly articulating distinct hierarchies within complex, multilayered musical textures. This was readily apparent in her rendition of Partita No. 1, which she performed with a suitably sunny disposition, resisting any urge toward romantic self-indulgence.

The highlight of the recital, however, was Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, op. 22. Like the majority of Schumann’s works for solo piano, the influence of Clara Wieck, the composer’s youthful heartthrob (and future wife), and stellar pianist to boot, looms large. An earlier version of the work contained a finale that Wieck deemed too difficult and complex, and she successfully convinced Schumann to replace this movement with the somewhat tamer concluding rondo that pianists play to this day. But all is relative in this sonata in which everything drips with passion, effectively rendered by Hewitt in her ability to juxtapose vigorous displays of virtuosity with serene moments of poetically charged introspection.

The second movement andantino shines a warm spotlight on Schumann the dreamer. It is based on an earlier song by the composer entitled Im Herbst, in which the poet implores the sun to set so that he alone may provide warmth to his beloved. Here, under Hewitt’s fingers, the Fazioli conjured up gleaming embers of extraordinary delicacy, a forlorn aubade to warm the soul.