Schumann at Wigmore Hall

2009-11-05 / / Ben Hogwood

Angela Hewitt began her Schumann programme with Arabeske, approaching the main theme very gradually, as if drawing breath before speaking. It was characteristic of her attention to subtle detail throughout each of the four pieces, which were notable not just for clarity but for a natural sense of poetry and emotion. The faster sections of Arabeske were perfectly aligned with the main theme, after which Hewitt turned her attention to the eighteen pieces that make up Davidsbündlertänze.

Completed less than a week after Schumann’s clandestine engagement to Clara, this largely happy music that reflect the composer’s growing confidence and freedom in his writing for piano. Hewitt drew on her affinity with Bach to highlight Schumann’s contrapuntal writing for the sixth piece, her dexterity revealing the inner part-writing, while slower passages were reflective and lyrical, Hewitt well-judged in the use of rubato. The faster pieces, and in particular the first, featured sparkling right-hand passagework. Though each piece is markedly different in structure the collection as a whole is carefully woven together; Hewitt was particularly alive to this aspect of form in the last three sections, the music unexpectedly tumbling back into C major after the cascading figurations of the penultimate piece.

Despite its preoccupation with hunting, Waldszenen is an elusive set of pieces, with ‘Vogel als prophet’ an uncertain, haunting piece that never settles; the bird of the title easily disturbed. Hewitt caught the arpeggiated flourishes as the bird took wing, though the coolness of her approach suggested an underlying nervousness. This was also the case in the furtive melodies of ‘Verrufene Stelle’, though those of ‘Freundliche Landschaft’ twirled colourfully. Meanwhile ‘Herbege’ and ‘Jagdlied’ were more regal in character, the ceremonial nature of the hunt brought into focus.

Hewitt’s technical command was most evident in a formidable account of the Second Piano Sonata, given with challenging tempos yet without the melodic threads becoming blurred. This Sonata is based on a song setting Kerner, ‘Im Herbst’ (In Autumn), and during the faster music it was easy to imagine leaves whirling in the wind. This was a vivid image as Hewitt attacked the first and last movements with gusto, the first pausing only briefly for its lyrical second subject, while in the finale the pianist sought much greater contrast between sections; critical, too, was Schumann’s ‘false ending’, delivered with a real frisson of anguish before balance and tonality quickly righted for a headlong rush to the finish.. The scherzo passed in the blink of an eye, its incisive octaves rock-solid, but the emotional centre of this performance was the Andantino, Hewitt using a little more sustaining pedal but finding a moment of calm amongst the storm.

Countering this was the stillness of the encore, ‘Träumerei’ from Kinderszenen, its phrases beautifully shaped.