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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen Op.15 (1838) [18:27]
Davidsbündlertänze Op.6 (1837) [36:58]
Piano Sonata No.2 in G minor Op.22 (1838) [20:05]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 6-9 November 2009, Das Kultuurzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbacio, Italy
HYPERION CDA67780 [75:32]
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Experience Classicsonline

Stunned by Angela Hewitt’s Bach collection which was released in one satisfyingly chunky box in 2010, you might also have had your anticipatory senses alerted by a few excerpts from the Davidsbündlertänze which were part of the Not Bach sampler tucked into the bottom of the set. This beautifully recorded programme of Schumann lives up to expectations. Hewitt’s sensitivity of touch and vivid sense of colour and imagination brings these pieces vibrantly, if not entirely un-controversially, to life.
The Kinderszenen will be perhaps the most familiar of the works in this recital, certainly as one of the most popular of Schumann’s piano works, and also as the kinds of pieces many of us will have attempted to learn as part of the educational literature. As you can imagine, Hewitt raises the status of these pieces way beyond the stuff of early piano lessons, and part of her skill in communicating in this music is in realising the poetic content and intention in and behind Schumann’s notes. Without in any way suggesting that this has failed, there are elements in the playing which may take a little getting used to, or with which you may disagree entirely. Schumann’s scores are clear and unambiguous on one level, but on another they leave a great deal to the interpretative powers of the pianist. They are not over-laden with expression markings or ritenuti, so that the pianist has a great deal of freedom, but also a huge responsibility. Angela Hewitt’s decisions are a natural response to both the notes as they stand, and partly indicated by the depth of study she has clearly made of the music, shown in her extensive and nicely written booklet notes. The give and take of her rubati are well balanced, so that the forward leaning moments in the first Von fremden Ländern und Menschen are given release in the pulling back in tempo at the end of each phrase. The more march-like or dancing pieces are superbly contrasted, but the extremes are to be found in the rather massive fermatas in a piece such as Träumerei, with which I can imagine people having one or two problems. Radu Lupu in his Decca recording shows how a similar depth of expressive message can be communicated with a good deal less pulling around. The complete honesty of expression and beauty of tone and touch in Hewitt’s playing win me over every time, but there are occasions where she pushes the boundaries pretty much to the limits of cohesion.
One thing where Hewitt and both Clara Schumann and I amicably part company is in our opinion of Schumann’s Carnaval, of which Hewitt writes, “I would rather play the [Davidsbündlertänze]… ten times than hear Carnaval once.” The only reason I bring this up is as part of the programme on the comparison disc I’ve been using; that of Alessandra Ammara on the Arts label, which I enjoyed immensely. Ammara’s timings are almost invariably a little longer than Hewitt’s, the latter tending to have a more urgent, more high-tensile view of the swifter pieces such as the opening Lebhaft and the first of the two marked Mit Humor. The forward-darting aspect of Hewitt’s rubato is to my mind less appealing in something like Ungeduldig, where the variation in tempo seems to take over from the significance of the notes, though I have to admit she certainly does sound more ‘impatient’ than Ammara. The song-like melodies of the lyrical movements are a sheer delight, though my appreciation remains in the way Ammara brings out the sudden little changes in character within the music in little pieces like Einfach, where the dancing nature of the second half of the phrase comes more to the fore. Hewitt integrates more here, seeing that particular phrase as a single entity than one with a schizophrenic double character all of its own. In this way the subtle differences in fragrance between the two pianists remain distinct, while they are absolute equals in terms of absolute quality. I like for instance the way Ammara holds back the drama of Sehr rasch, allowing the narrative to unfold and grow with a sense of organic wildness, but from roots deep under the soil. Hewitt arcs upwards from a position more of lightness and transparency, the lower notes given marginally less weight and either a sharper articulation or a touch less length. These are all very fractional differences of approach and I don’t really want to give the impression I prefer the one over the other. It may seem an easy way to duck out of making choices, but the truth is I just enjoy the fascinating little technical angles and alternative brushstrokes of expression between these recordings and revel in being able to enjoy Schumann’s endlessly fascinating possibilities in both.
Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.2 in G minor follows the writer’s rule, ‘start with an avalanche and go on from there.’ Angela Hewitt grips us from the start with the “great sweep and passion typically combining dramatic urgency with moments of rapt tenderness.” This is certainly a performance which wrings everything imaginable from the score. Relatively compact, the piece has a sublime Andantino second movement whose lyrical beauty Hewitt expresses with absolute refinement and a sense of tender restraint which touches the soul. Those extremes of drama can be almost brutal, and we are shaken by the throat as the calls of the Scherzo bring us out of our reverie from the previous movement. The finale, Schumann’s second attempt, the first being considered too difficult by Clara and including her musical motto in the second subject, reflects the restless motion of the accompanying figure in the first movement with octaves which fly through the air like swallows chasing insects.
Let’s be honest, there is no shortage of Schumann piano music in the recorded catalogues. Of this programme the Piano Sonata No.2 is the least frequently recorded, but Angela Hewitt is up against competition from an extensive list of big names. Distinctive and touchingly beautiful as it is, the cover painting ‘Sister Emilie Sleeping’ by Adolph von Menzel conjures contents of soporific effect, and nothing could be further from the truth. Angela Hewitt has a magical touch on her preferred Fazioli instrument and this recording is genuinely full of those ‘moments of dramatic urgency and rapt tenderness’. Fans and newcomers to Hewitt’s playing alike will find much to admire and enjoy here, now and for a long, long time to come.
Dominy Clements







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