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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor S178 [34:23]
Sonetto 47 del Petrarca S161/4 [6:24]
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca S161/5 [7:35]
Sonetto 123 del Petrarca S161/6 [7:58]
Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata S161/7 [18:15]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 19-22 May 2014, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
HYPERION CDA68067 [74:37]

I was interested to read in the accompanying booklet notes to this release Angela Hewitt’s early reactions to the Liszt Sonata, that it was a long meandering structure with no sense of direction or purpose. That notion soon changed when she heard her then teacher Jean-Paul Sévilla play it. So, at the age of eighteen, she decided to learn it; it took two months. Since that time the Sonata has remained in her active repertoire being "brought … out of the cupboard at regular intervals". It has been her long-held desire to record it. I was fortunate to hear Hewitt play the Liszt Sonata at a local concert several years ago, and was impressed by the sensitivity she brought to the score, a sentiment I shared with her after the concert.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata was completed February 1853 and published the following year. It is dedicated to Robert Schumann, in return for Schumann’s dedication to Liszt of the C major Fantasie, Op. 17. It is an innovative work, technically demanding and requiring a pianist with great virtuosic skill and stamina to do it justice. It is cast in one movement, consisting of up of six themes which undergo transformation as things progress. The performer needs to grasp the work’s cyclical structure, keep it as a single cohesive unit and integrate the themes into one overarching sonata-form movement.

Listening to this performance, Hewitt rises to the challenge admirably. Her performance has poise, elegance, nobility and refinement. She doesn’t deliver a barn-storming event, but allows the music a chance to breathe. Some may perhaps miss the visceral excitement of Argerich’s DG recording, but I am drawn to this more measured and probing approach. I also admire Hewitt’s wide dynamic range, and sensitive use of pedal, by which she is able to achieve an enriching palette of tonal colour. Whilst I applaud the sweeping gestures of the narrative, Hewitt’s treatment of the more poetic aspects of the work are breathtaking. The whole performance is underpinned by a sense of inevitability.

We have to turn the clock back for the remainder of Hewitt’s recital in which she offers selections from the Années de Pèlerinage Book II (Italie). This set of pieces was composed between 1837 and 1849, and published in 1858. The three Petrarch Sonnets were originally conceived as songs, but later adapted for solo piano and incorporated into the Années de Pèlerinage. They are the composer’s musical response to the poet’s depiction of love for Laura de Noves, and Hewitt reflects this in her playing. She focuses on the intimacy, simplicity and reflective qualities of the music.

In contrast, Après une lecture du Dante ‘Fantasia quasi Sonata’, based on Dante’s ‘Divine Poem’ is an epic view. Hewitt brings to the work formidable drama, power and intensity and portrays a great range of emotion. Yet, in the more lyrical moments, she invests the score with subtle poetic insights.

The Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin provides a warm and spacious acoustic. Hewitt uses an Italian Fazioli piano, a make she favours. It produces a full, powerful and rich sound, ideal for this repertoire. The pianist has written her own insightful annotations, discussing the works in detail, and setting them in the context of the composer’s life. The full texts of the Petrarch Sonnets are provided in English, French and German translation, together with the original Italian.

Whilst I wouldn’t like to be without Horowitz (1932) and Argerich in the Liszt Sonata, and Brendel in the Années de Pèlerinage Book II (Italie) selections, Hewitt’s take on these magnificent works offers a compelling alternative.

Stephen Greenbank