Bringing out the best from a keyboard Music: Angela Hewitt's so adept at playing one composer's works on the piano, she's been an inspiration to other pianists to come back to Bach.

November 21, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Ask Angela Hewitt if she gets many chances to play Beethoven nowadays and you can almost see the smile over the telephone.

"Quite a lot, actually," says the Ottawa-born, London-based pianist. "I've been doing all five of his concertos."

Maybe it's a silly thing to ask. After all, Hewitt's 1993 visit to Baltimore resulted in a beautifully executed, refreshingly expressive performance of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, and she will perform his First Concerto with them tonight and tomorrow in Meyerhoff Hall.

But the question may be forgiven, if only because Hewitt made her reputation more than a decade ago with victories in three international Bach competitions and has since enhanced it with several remarkable recordings of the composer's music for Hyperion.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Hewitt's performances have helped to make other pianists feel that it is now safe to go back to Bach.

The 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" -- Liszt called them the pianist's Old Testament and Beethoven's 32 sonatas the New -- remained a staple of the repertory until World War II.

Playing Bach on the piano became unfashionable after the war because of pressure to perform early music in a historically informed manner on instruments such as those the composers might have used. Most pianists retreated, surrendering Bach to the harpsichordists.

Some of the few pianists who continued to perform him often seemed as if they hated the sound of the modern piano. Glenn Gould, for example, nailed tacks into his instrument's felt-covered hammers to make its sound resemble that of a harpsichord. Other pianists expressed their embarrassment either by refraining from using all the piano's resources or by writing liner notes, as Alfred Brendel once did for a Bach recording, that apologized for their violation of decorum.

What makes Hewitt different is that she likes the sound of Bach on the piano.

"I LOVE the instrument and the sound I can get on it," says the pianist, who is in her late 30s.

Indeed. When Hyperion asked Hewitt in the early 1990s to record nTC the complete keyboard works of Bach -- a mammoth project that will occupy her into the 21st century -- she and her producer, Otto Ernst Wohlert, searched Europe for an appropriate instrument.

Hewitt found her dream piano in Hanover, Germany -- an old Hamburg Steinway that the great German master of touch, pianist Wilhelm Kempff, had used for many of his celebrated Deutsche Grammophon recordings.

"It has wonderfully soft registers, an ability to play evenly with the soft pedal down and an exquisite ring at the top," she says.

Although Hewitt, the daughter of one of Canada's most prominent organists, knows as much about baroque performance practice as any harpsichordist, she uses that information for interpretations that make Bach's keyboard music sound as it had been written for the modern piano.

Her playing in Bach's fast movements is animated and rhythmically flexible. The rapt expressiveness of her slow movements, while never descending into sentimental Romantic anachronisms, shows her success in emphasizing Bach's melodic lines, as no harpsichordist can, by using the piano's capacity for sustaining a phrase. And the way she articulates the composer's dazzling counterpoint demonstrates that playing Bach has less to do with the instrument used than with a player's intelligence and imagination.

Of course, Hewitt's mastery extends to universes other than Bach's. Her most recent recital in London's Wigmore Hall opened with Bach, but moved on to Beethoven, Schumann, Albeniz and Messiaen. A tape of that recital reveals her remarkable range.

Hewitt's interpretation of Schumann's "Kinderszenen" is poetic, yearning and dreamily introspective. Her rendition of Albeniz's "Austuria" is so idiomatic that its dance rhythms sound as if they are driven by guitars and castanets. A performance of Messiaen's "Regard de L'Esprit de Joie" conquers its ferocious difficulties with a sense of abounding joy that makes London's most sophisticated audience erupt in cheers. And, finally, Hewitt's Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 is performed with discipline and logic, as well as with a sense of whimsy and profound feeling.

"The clarity of thought and articulation that playing Bach demands are very helpful with other composers, particularly Beethoven," Hewitt says.

Although she has performed Concerto No. 1 for years, this weekend will be the first time she will play the longer, more difficult and more complex first-movement cadenza Beethoven wrote 13 years after completing the piece -- rather than the short and relatively simple one most listeners know.

"It's a HUGE piece of writing and not everyone brings it off successfully," she says. "It seems as if he tries repeatedly to end it, only to let it run off in a new direction each time.

"It's an example of Beethoven's sense of humor at its most manic," Hewitt adds. "I just hope the audience gets the joke."

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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