By Caldwell Titcomb
For some years professional musicians in London have been urging me to get acquainted with the pianism of Angela Hewitt. I was finally able to catch up last Sunday when she made her Boston debut at Jordan Hall under the auspices of the Celebrity Series. A sizeable audience was on hand and she was rightly received with unusual enthusiasm.
Born in Canada in 1958, she began studying the piano at three and gave her first recital at nine. She won the Toronto International Bach Competition in 1985, and that year took up residence in London, where she lives today. She is particularly celebrated for her Bach, whose entire keyboard output she has recorded on 14 CDs.
For those who maintain that Bach should be played only on the harpsichord or clavichord, it should be pointed out that the former allows no graded dynamics and the latter, which does, is relatively faint and not suited for large audiences. It may surprise some to learn that in his later years Bach tried out Gottfried Silbermann’s fledgling pianos, made suggestions for improvement, approved the changes and became an agent for Silbermann’s instruments. So there is no reason that pianists today should be castigated for playing Bach.
Indeed it was Bach that Hewitt chose to open her recital – the last of the so-called six English Suites, the one in D-minor. There is nothing especially English about these works, but the designation is a handy long-standing moniker. The sixth suite is a big piece lasting a half hour. It begins with a monumental prelude nearly 200 measures long, and Hewitt made small ritards to mark important structural points. In addition to the usual dance forms – allemande, courante, sarabande (this one with unexpected harmonies), and gigue – this suite also had two gavottes. Although Hewitt did not quite match the nuanced subtleties that Murray Perahia captured in this piece, her playing was pretty wondrous all the same.
She next turned to Beethoven’s early sonata in F-major, Opus 10, No. 2 – only half as long as the Bach, since it lacks a slow movement. With the utmost clarity, this went swimmingly, and she brought a proper Haydnesque wit to the presto finale.
After intermission she moved from Germany to France for a quite different pair of composers: Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel. Fauré ought to figure in more concerts than he does. Performances tend to center on the gorgeous Requiem, the C-minor piano quartet, the cello “Elegy” and a few songs. But his solo piano music is rarely pulled off the shelf. So it was a pleasure to have Hewitt dust off the first two of four pieces designated “Valse-Caprice” (1882 and 1884) – a genre used by Liszt, Grieg and a few other nineteenth-century composers. Fauré was one of the subtlest harmonists in history, and these works positively shimmered, with more use of the sustaining pedal than in the Bach and Beethoven. It would have been nice to have the later pair to provide the full set.
Ravel was represented by his celebrated “Tombeau de Couperin,” containing six movements on which he worked intermittently for three years during World War I. He was nominally tipping his hat to his illustrious eighteenth-century predecessor. But actually his mental and physical shape was poor as he risked danger as a military truck driver, culminating in his mother’s death. The separate movements of the work were dedicated to the memory of friends who had fallen in the war: his childhood chums Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, Jean Dreyfus, and officers Jacques Charlot, Jean Cruppi, Gabriel Deluc, and Joseph de Marliave.
In Hewitt’s hands the opening prelude was a shade too fast, the fugue a bit plodding. The forlane, rigaudon, and menuet were tops, and the concluding toccata was spirited if slightly marred by a couple of slipped notes. (In 1919 Ravel, with Mahler one of the two greatest orchestrators of the century, scored four of the movements, omitting the fugue and toccata.)
The cheering audience demanded two encores: Ravel’s lovely “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” and, to close the circle, the dreamy arpeggios of the C-major opening movement of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Hewitt will be welcome back in Boston any time she chooses.