IN THE PRESENCE OF GREATNESS
DAVID THOMPSON is impressed by Angela Hewitt's
playing of Bach, Couperin and Ravel at
London's South Bank International Piano Series
It is not often that a recital in an international piano series is comprised of only about one quarter of music actually composed for the piano. Such, however, was the case here, when the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt graced the platform before a packed audience at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 5 November 2003. No real surprise, however, as Hewitt is one of today's pre-eminent interpreters of Bach, and had brought her much-fêted performance of the Goldberg Variations for our eager appraisal.
Having spent a decade studying, performing and recording the major keyboard works of Bach, Hewitt has recently embarked on the task of performing a similar service in the cause of François Couperin (1668-1733). She inaugurated her recital with a performance of the Sixième Ordre of the Pièces de Clavecin. Such evangelistic zeal is indeed to be welcomed, but, whereas Bach's music works especially well on the modern piano, I am not quite so sure that Couperin's much more elaborately 'orchestrated' music sits quite so comfortably in such an alien context. Couperin's suites are less sequences of formal dances than pictorial miniatures that are conceived with the special effects department of the concert harpsichord, and the particular digital articulation the instrument demands, very much in mind.
Hewitt's peerless technique and sharp intellect and wit ensured that the case she made would be a highly enjoyable experience in the making, and so it was, with every ornament and roulade finely turned within an appropriately reined-in dynamic range. The whole sequence was delightful, and, above all, great fun, which is saying something, given that the eight component pieces are all in the same key. It was sophisticated entertainment, but I was not left thinking that I must now urgently acquire every note of keyboard music that Couperin ever wrote, nor that the piano is his preferred instrument.
Angela Hewitt. Photo © Steve J Sherman
We were then treated to some 'real' piano music by Ravel, another of this versatile artiste's specialisms. Miroirs was the chosen work, and it was marvellously done. Hewitt, now allowed the full range of pianistic colour, seized the opportunity gratefully, and thrilled us as much with her complete empathy with Ravel's refined sound-world as much as with her transcendental technique. This was a total and triumphant assumption of the entire range of the component pieces. The haunting melancholy of Oiseaux tristes was just as much a highlight as the brilliant hispanic fireworks of Alborada del gracioso, which momentarily stopped the show.
Copyright © 11 November 2003
David Thompson, Eastwood, Essex, UK