James HEWITT (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Music
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. 2017-18, location not given
CENTAUR CRC3736-39 [4 CDs: 302.45]
A new name? Well it certainly is for me. James Hewitt was an Englishman, from Devon, who made his way to the USA in his early twenties and became their first really significant composer and here is his life’s work, in a box set of four CDs amounting to over one hundred tracks. So is it worth buying, or was it worth Kirsten Johnson and Centaur recording all of these tiny pieces? Four discs is quite a tall order and they seem to have been recorded in just three days.
You will have noticed that Hewitt was born 250 years ago this June and that he was an exact contemporary of Beethoven. That, however, is where this silly comparison ends, although it might be interesting to speculate whether Hewitt came across any Beethoven in what was then a rather remote land across the pond.
There is quite a variety to be discovered in Hewitt’s output but the language and style is very much music of its time - the mid-Classical period. The type of composer which comes to mind is Muzio Clementi (d.1832) or some lesser-known figures that you might find set for middle grades of piano exams. Indeed, Hewitt’s music would work well in a didactic context, particularly with the Sonatas and the even shorter Sonatinas. There are Preludes, Sets of Variations as, for example, the one on Yankee Doodle and another on what we now know as ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, programmatic pieces with colourful titles such as “Governor Lincoln’s Grand March as performed by the Brigand Band at the inauguration of his excellency”. There are Marches, Quicksteps and other dances like Waltzes often composed for friends, it seems, or for special occasions. There is a Potpourri consisting of nine popular tunes of the day like, “Sigh no more ladies” and ‘The Wounded Hussar’. There is an Overture or two, the earliest being “The New Federal Overture”, again using familiar American melodies and a March. Another descriptive piece is the rather lengthy ‘The Battle of Trenton” called an ‘Historical Sonata”, with canon explosions, trumpet calls and soldier songs. I need not go on; you get the picture. There should be no doubt then that Hewitt was a versatile composer, full of ideas and compositional novelties.
However, I’m not really convinced that the music is really worth too much attention. This is not to decry in any way the neatness, clarity and utter persuasiveness of the performances and the closeness and warmth of the recording. Hewitt is mostly a good melodist and the Sonatas particularly have an especial charm but the left-hand work- the accompaniments - fall into mostly basic patterns such as simple broken chords and the tiresome Alberti bass. The ideas are often short-winded, are only occasionally of strong character, and are almost simplistic at times and very foursquare.
Sonata form is normal in the more abstract works and there are several examples of the Rondo, for example, the fourth and fifth Sonatas end with one. Some of these have two movements lasting in all less than four minutes and others three, with an Andante in the middle.
I’ll end with three pieces that I have most enjoyed. On disc 3, there is one of the more technically demanding examples a Capriccio in G minor, which even reminded me of C.P.E. Bach and also on this disc is ‘The 4th of July, a Grand Military Sonata for the Pianoforte’ which paints “a picture of battle, celebrating…. America’s Declaration of Independence from the British Isles”. This starts innocently enough and covers over its perhaps over-extended eighteen minutes a variety of fanfares (normally rising arpeggio figures) and ‘airs’ and battle cries suitable for celebration, all couched in one dramatic movement. Then on disc 4 there is the Ploughboy Variations, which is movement two of a Sonata for Pianoforte of 1809. The tune may be remembered from Britten’s arrangement of it.
The set comes with brief anonymous comments on each piece, which is handy, and just a few lines of biography.
Piano Sonata, Op. 5 No. 1
Piano Sonata, Op. 5 No. 3
The Gift of Apollo
German Waltzes & Dances, Op. 9
4 Quick Marches
Piano Sonatina No. 1 in C Major
Piano Sonatina No. 2 in G Major
Piano Sonatina No. 3 in D Major
Piano Sonatina No. 4 in F Major
Piano Sonatina No. 5 in G Major
Piano Sonatina No. 6 in D Major
Grand March & Tammany Quick Step
Thema with 30 Variations
Preludio in C Major
Preludio in A Minor
Preludio in D Minor
Capriccio in B-Flat Major
Preludio in F Major
Capriccio in G Minor
The New Medley Overture
March in Pizzarro
Olla Podrida No. 1
Governor Lewis's March
Mark My Alford
Olla Podrida No. 3
General Scott's Grand March
General Scott's Quick Step
Grand Military Sonata for Piano "The 4th of July"