A ‘recital’ is how Hewitt describes the thinking behind this disc. Shunning convention, she has dispensed with such things as chronological sequencing and opus number groupings as determining factors. Instead she has opted for three sonatas, each one representative of the three periods of Beethoven’s compositional oeuvre. She opens with the Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22 which, she states in her notes, is ‘the last of the early sonatas, sitting on the bridge to Beethoven’s middle period’. This period is represented by the E flat Sonata Op.31 No. 3. Finally we have the late Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 101.
I have never really understood the relative neglect of Op. 22. There is a wealth of melodic material in it. One reason given is that the first movement presents the pianist with some technical challenges in the shape of rapid semiquaver and broken octave passages, which have put it out of the reach of many amateurs. I disagree with Denis Matthew’s almost harsh assessment of it, that ‘the work’s own confidence leads to a certain predictability … surprisingly free from surprises and stands firmly at the crossroads without committing itself to any new departure” (BBC Music Guide). Hewitt’s is a technically impressive reading, contained but with meticulous attention to detail. The Adagio, taken at a slower tempo than most, is expressive and eloquent and lives up to the ‘con molto espressione’ marking. Grace and charm are a feature of the Menuetto. Unfortunately, in the Rondo finale the sun never really comes out, and the movement doesn’t smile like Brendel’s digital version.
In Op. 31 No. 3 the character and narrative are sustained throughout the first movement. Rubato is well-judged and tastefully achieved. A sprightly Scherzo in duple time follows. The Menuetto would have benefited from a tad more elegance and charm. The finale is a true Presto con fuoco, with Hewitt pulling out all the stops and giving an energized reading with real verve.
Of the three sonatas here it is the late Op. 101 in A major that I savoured the most. Something tells me that Hewitt is in her comfort zone with this work. In her booklet notes she indicates a particular preference for this work, and she has had it in her repertoire for many years. Her affinity is evident in the warmth and lyricism with which she imbues the score. She brings such tenderness to the opening bars, yet the emotion is rightly contained. A brisk march leads to an adagio which is serene and reflective. In the finale there is energy, vitality and drive, leading to the fugal development. The clarity with which she declaims the fugal narrative owes its success, I am sure, to her eminence as a Bach player.
Of the four volumes of Beethoven Piano Sonatas already put out by Hyperion, volume 1 is the only other one I have heard to date; volume 2 is reviewed here and volume 3 here. I was particularly taken by her performance of the Appassionata, which is truly compelling. However, what does strike me, so far, is that Hewitt does not possess, to the same extent, the dynamic range or palette of tonal colour of the likes of Brendel, Pollini or Gilels. Neither is there quite the imagination, emotional range and probing depth I admire in Arrau.
The Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin provides a superb acoustic. Using an Italian Fazioli piano, a make favoured by Hewitt, the sound is full, clear and warm. It is a piano with plenty of power, well-regulated and expertly voiced. The pianist’s own annotations are intelligent and illuminating.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas