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Seen and Heard Recital Review

F. Couperin, Mendelssohn, Fauré, Schumann Angela Hewitt (piano), Wigmore Hall, Tuesday, October 26th, 2004 (CC)

Back in September 2003, Angela Hewitt opened the Monday Lunchtime series at the Wigmore with a captivating performance of François Couperin. Here, in a full evening recital (full also in terms of audience), she began with the ‘13e Ordre’ from the Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin. Hewitt is probably Couperin le grand’s foremost living exponent. The care with which she handles her text is remarkable. For some, Couperin can maybe be too frilly (so many ornaments). Occasionally Hewitt sounded a little awkward in execution (surprisingly), but this was the exception rather than the rule.

The ‘13e Ordre’ includes as its fourth movement a set of variations, ‘Les folies françoises ou les dominos’ that acts as its most substantive musical statement. During the course of the third movement (‘L’engageante’) Hewitt had reminded us she is unafraid of using the grand piano’s capabilities in this music (she plays a Fazioli). The variations encompass a wide range of emotions and technical problems. Hewitt could conjure up the haltingly playful as well as the extra-delicate. It was a lovely performance. Couperin closes this Ordre in remarkable fashion, with a desolate movement called ‘L’âme-en peine’ (‘The soul in torment’), where the musical surface is replete with sighing figures.

Hewitt’s programme was fascinating, moving from Couperin to Mendelssohn to close the first half. Two Preludes and Fugues, to be accurate – one familiar (the E minor, Op. 35 No. 1), one perhaps less so (the F minor, No. 5 from the same opus). These works deserve more regular airings, such is their freshness of invention. Hewitt evoked quasi-organ sonorities in the E minor’s stormy Prelude before progressing to a languorous Fugue. The F minor benefited from her shading of the right hand melody in the Prelude while the running velocity of the Fugue revealed her finger-strength. This repertoire suits Hewitt well – is it too much to hope for future recordings?

It was surely a sign of the stature of Hewitt’s Fauré that the thought that kept crossing my mind was ‘Why don’t we hear this more?’ The Theme and Variations in C sharp minor, Op. 73 dates from 1895. The Theme seemed remarkably heavy (especially for this composer), yet it was this very heaviness that contrasted so well with the liquid right-hand of the first variation. At times, Hewitt could almost convince one that she was improvising. The heart of this work is the slow, pavane-like sixth variation, here an intensely personal statement in Hewitt’s hands. She almost used an Impressionist touch at times that was highly effective. The final calm (structurally, a surprise) seems reminiscent of Beethoven’s Op. 109 final movement’s return to its theme. Calm in both cases is seen in a very different light, after the various musical processes the theme has been subjected to.

Schumann’s Arabesque is a relatively infrequent visitor to concert platforms for a variety of reasons (not least technical). Belying its title, it is a large-scale work of some 25 minutes duration. Hewitt managed somehow to combine integrity of conception with alertness to the quirky side of Schumann’s persona so that unsettling juxtapositions were presented without any attempt to gloss over the gap. Hewitt called forth the warmest tone of the recital for the interior third movement (‘Einfach und zart’) before presenting a finale of the utmost intensity.

Angela Hewitt is always thought provoking, her programming ever stimulating. Small wonder seats are like gold dust for her recitals.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

F. Couperin Keyboard Music, Vols 1 & 2. Hyperion CDA67440 & CDA67480

Fauré Theme et Variations & 13 Barcarolles. Germaine Thyssens-Valentin. Testament SBT1215

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