Recital in the Royal Festival Hall, London

2011-03-31 / The Times, London / Hilary Finch

If you want to experience the angst of an artist, if you want temperament and vicarious high-octane living, it ain’t there. But if you want the sheer joy of human creation and recreation, then go to a piano recital by Angela Hewitt. From the moment she steps sprightly on stage—the walk of the dancer she was in a former incarnation—you know that the hum of happiness is going to be there, in and through everything she plays.

This time Hewitt had paired two keyboard suites of the Baroque period with two masterpieces of variation form. So, triple creation: that of the original composer; then the responses of another; and finally the recreating imagination of the performing artist. It was a feast.

A simple Bach Partita (No 1 in B flat) focused ear and spirit on the light-filled clarity of Hewitt’s fingerwork. The Corrente skipped high on it way; the solemnity of the Sarabande was brightened by the sheer élan Hewitt brought to its embellishing gestures.

Beethoven played a lot of Bach—and his spirit courses through the 15 Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme. Think of the last movement of the Eroica Symphony—but think more of its origins, Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.

This was, indeed, music for dance, and playing whose gleeful imagination equalled the birth of all those creatures of art put together. With her left hand raised as an orator, Hewitt gave voice to the first ringing chord, then allowed the theme—or hints of it—to tiptoe forward in dark, inscrutable octaves. Hands crossed each other as the melody found its way out of the maze, and into the clear air of dance. The mischief of an oompah bass, a mini-cadenza for an invisible concerto, a sombre song with tricksy ornamentation—it was all there, and much, much more.

Hewitt’s intoxication with the joys of variations within variations reached its peak in Brahms’s 25 Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel: virtuoso technique, tale-telling and reminiscence, after a keyboard suite by Handel himself. Brahms’s beloved Clara Schumann played the variations—and her spirit was conjured in Hewitt’s impassioned encore: Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s lovesong Widmung. A final, hushed Bach Sarabande, and the rest was silence.