Recital in San José

2009-03-01 / San José Mercury News / Richard Scheinin

Hewitt shows deep affinity for Bach and Beethoven

There were moments — many, many moments — during pianist Angela Hewitt’s outrageously excellent recital Friday at San Jose State University when one had to wonder: How? How exactly was she doing it?

Perhaps she tunes the little radio receivers in her fingertips to a live transmission from Mount Olympus. Whatever her secret, the Canadian-born pianist has internalized the music of J.S. Bach, and also Beethoven, to a degree that it simply passes through her fingertips and assumes the shape of something approaching perfection at the keyboard.

Hewitt drew the audience, a full house at the university’s Music Building, into one of those mystery zones that materialize during the best performances. This was playing, as they say, from another plane.

Performing Bach’s Partita No. 5, which opened the recital, a fundraiser for the American Beethoven Society, Hewitt seemed to pluck fabulous objects from the shelves of a cosmic glass works. Each of the suite’s movements was uniquely intricate, yet ultimately simple, as Hewitt exposed Bach’s puzzle-work through her playing: crisp, clear, buoyant, engine-driven or delicately eddying.

She allowed the Sarabande, a slow dance and the suite’s fourth movement, to unfold at a pace barely beyond stasis, with painful beauty. Then came the Corrente, its interlocking lines flawlessly nibbled and pecked, models of logic and humor.

The daughter of a cathedral organist in Ottawa, Hewitt was born to Bach. She has recorded all his major keyboard works and recently toured the world, performing all 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Both books. From memory.

With this foundation, she understands something about Beethoven that many pianists miss: his indebtedness to Bach. She scrubbed clean the opening Presto to Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Opus 10, No. 3, revealing the Bach-like motion inside it. The Largo unfolded much like the earlier Sarabande, peeking at eternity through stasis.

It’s not that Hewitt deprives Beethoven of his stormy, romantic nature. But she merges it with the clarity of Bach — as in one of the D major sonata’s closing gestures, an impossibly swift run up the keyboard. Somehow, each note was perfectly articulated, yet the overall gesture registered with incredible delicacy, like a faint ripple across a lake.

Hewitt’s artistry gets an assist from the Italian-made Fazioli piano. She says it gives her clarity and so, a gleaming Fazioli was specially carted to the Music Building for the recital.

It sounded great. But Hewitt’s impact has many sources: Her background studying ballet is another. Her sense of proportion and motion are intensely balletic, as are the physical gestures she makes while playing to emphasize the shape of a phrase.

But there’s really no explanation for the depth of music-making that happened in the recital’s second half.

Hewitt reached into the deep, invisible undertow of Bach’s English Suite, No. 6. In the Sarabande, the music seemed to stand outside time; now we were entering that mystery zone, where souls get washed clean. The final gigue was — I’m not sure how else to put it — unbelievable.

And maybe you’ve heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata a thousand times? Hewitt took it back to the template. Inside the peace of the opening adagio sostenuto was a pearl of tension. The allegretto was fresh as April rain. The presto agitato brought on the night terrors, but beautiful ones. If this is the storm of the soul, let’s have it.”