Royal Festival Hall
Bach – Chorale Prelude: ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV 659, arr. Wilhelm KempffBach – Siciliano in G minor from Flute Sonata, BWV 1031, arr. Kempff
Bach – Sinfonia in D major from Cantata no.29, ‘Wir danken dir, Gott,’ arr. Kempff
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.28 in A major, op.101
Bach – The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080: Contrapunctus I – Contrapunctus X
Not wishing to be typecast as a ‘Bach pianist’ is quite understandable, though if ever there were a composer in whose music one could satisfyingly immerse oneself for ever and a day it would surely be Johann Sebastian. ‘Specialist’ seems an utter misnomer, given that we are dealing with the most universal composer of all, not that those who would reduce Bach to the status of a generic Baroque composer have the faintest inkling of that. Angela Hewitt’s repertoire has of course always ranged beyond Bach. On the evidence, however, of this recital, the first in this season’s International Piano Series, her Beethoven – admittedly a fearsomely difficult choice in the guise of op.101 – is not or at least not yet on the same level as her Bach, which itself has over recent years gained greater depth. (Click here for a review of Hewitt performing Book One of the Forty-Eight.)
There was much to admire in the Beethoven sonata, the first two movements proving the most successful. Indeed, the first movement, Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindungen – how utterly different such instructions sound in German from the usual Italian, and how different is their meaning! – struck an almost ideal balance between apparent reverie and structural communication. Beethoven’s syncopations both disoriented and comforted. The March was strong, rhythmically alert, ceding once again to dreams in the trio, though only apparently so, the trilling transition back equally impressive. In the finale, again, the transitional passages – however over-used a word it may be, ‘liminal’ seems almost to be demanded here – were magical. However, the fugal writing, perhaps surprisingly given Hewitt’s Bachian experience, came off less well. Or rather, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Beethoven is doing something quite different in this case. As if trying too hard to summon up a Beethovenian spirit, the music hardened rather than raged, sounding brittle rather than Romantic. Or was that to be ascribed to Hewitt’s Fazioli piano? Might a Bösendorfer or Steinway have provided greater depth? At any rate, white heat of development, without which the sonata principle cannot function, was fitful.
The three Wilhelm Kempff transcriptions had in a sense told a similar story in miniature. Nun komm’, der Heiden Heiland was beautifully voiced, noble in spirit, though there were occasions when I felt Hewitt – much to my surprise – bent the rhythms a little too much, sacrificing momentum. The Siciliano from BWV 1031 was limpid, quite magical, an object lesson in Bach playing, hyphenated or otherwise. However, the Sinfonia from BWV 29 – again to my surprise – sounded at times somewhat brutalised, tone hardening whilst at the same time being over-pedalled. A less breathless tempo might have helped, though I also wondered both whether the piece simply lent itself less well to piano transcription and again whether a mellower instrument might have assisted.
Reservations, such as they were, evaporated in the second half, in which Hewitt performed Contrapuncti I-X from The Art of Fugue. I could only wish that we had heard the work in its entirety. Her tone was expertly chosen, or rather did not seem ‘chosen’ at all, sounding utterly natural in response to the music. Bach’s endless reserves of imagination and intellect were at one. As the fugues progressed, one always had the sense that the world was his oyster; yet, looking, or hearing, back, one knew equally well that things could not have been other than they were. The first four fugues sounded very much as a group, Bach’s contrapuntal means and learning audible and meaningful, whether or no any particular listener would be able to put into words, let alone technical terms, what he was doing. In the stretto fugues and their successors, pace – whatever, if anything, that might mean – seemed to increase, Romantic ‘expression’ to deepen. The French Overture rhythms of Contrapunctus VI were beautifully handled; in Bach, ‘ornament’ is never really anything of the kind. No wonder Schoenberg revered him inordinately; his friend Adolf Loos’s criminalisation of ornament, so meaningful for Schoenberg himself, might as well have been derived from these fugues, harbingers of a searching modernism that would extend to the Domaine musical, to Darmstadt, and beyond. Yet pianistic beauty was never sacrificed to structural rigour; the two went hand in hand. Kempff’s transcription of Orpheus's Lament and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo – strictly, from his Orphée – made for a delectable, slightly unexpected, choice of encore.