Angela Hewitt is
almost without peer in her beloved Bach. Heard live it
is quite an experience. Her Rameau runs the gamut of delights
although I found her recent disc of keyboard music too much
of a good thing to handle in one go! Beethoven is another matter,
though, and here is Hewitt's second disc of Beethoven for Hyperion.
The first is reviewed on this site by Brian
Burtt. In her own very lucid booklet notes Hewitt explains
that on the disc the three sonatas here are presented in reverse
chronological order, 'simply because that way they make a more
satisfying recital for the listener'.
Given her early
music proclivities, it is no surprise that in her notes she
invokes the parallel of Rameau for the drone bass that permeates
the texture of the Pastoral’s first movement - referring
to the former's Musette en rondeau. Indeed, immersion
in earlyish music results in various positives to her Beethoven
that are present in few others. Textures are always crystal
clear and this is aided by her choice of a Fazioli instrument.
Her pedalling is light and tasteful. There are moments of magic:
the right-hand embellishment in the second movement, around
the four-minute mark. Moments of play are there too as in the
descending octaves and their staccato retorts of the third movement.
Alas we hear little sense of greatness. Gilels' 1982 recording,
rather more severe at times than Hewitt but hewn of the finest
oak, is probably my library choice here. I grew up with Ashkenazy's
early reading on Decca, and this remains recommendable. The
piece suits this pianist well; far better than the Diabelli
Variations, if his most recent release is anything to go
Hewitt traces the
origins of Op. 13's famous nickname fascinatingly, making reference
to an issue of the Musical Times of 1928 that compared
the themes of the sonata with Cherubini's Medée. Her
Grave introduction is bold and mysterious by turns. The
Allegro con brio, whilst imbued with plenty of life,
holds significantly less fire than most. Hewitt returns to the
beginning at the repeat, rather than to the Allegro,
a dramatic stroke at odds with the trajectory of her reading.
The lyrical passages that are usually contrastive in nature
here seem to try to suck the life out of the more rhythmically
active ones. The famous Adagio cantabile is, perhaps
predictably, a dream. Hewitt's touch is jewel-like, as it is
in the finale, where lines as well as triplets chase each other
in cat-and-mouse fashion.
The great early
C major Sonata concludes the recital. As any pianist will tell
you, it is 'fiddly', the ornaments at speed set to trap the
unwary. Hewitt, given her background in the supremely ornamented
music of Rameau, has no problems. This, though, was one of Richter's
favoured Sonatas - there are at a very minimum seven different
performances from this giant available in various incarnations
- so competition is fierce even from that one angle. Hewitt
sees everything in proportion and acts, arguably, as a complement
to Richter. Yet she is not that exciting in the first movement.
The glittery display of semiquavers and broken double octaves
seems a little mute. Her Adagio is a different matter,
though. Here at least she seems close to the music's core. The
piano almost becomes an organ at times - those huge left-hand
octaves! - so that the cheeky and perilous Scherzo comes
as welcome relief. The imitative fragments chuckle at one another,
as do the ascending sixths of the finale's theme. At the end,
one does not quite get the impression of the young Beethoven
flexing his compositional muscles; rather, one feels slightly
A mixed disc, then.
Hewitt's many felicitous touches do not, in the final analysis,
outweigh the feeling that she does not project the greatness
of these seminal works.