Angela Hewitt: More joy in Christ Church Cathedral

Angela Hewitt solo piano recital

Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria BC

16 May 2015


Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt has made a study, it appears, of the generosity of virtuoso performers, among them Franz Liszt and Domenico Scarlatti. Virtuosity is not a measure of technical proficiency; it is about giving with all that is in you, losing yourself to the music, responding to the notes on the page as if you were singing them.

And sing them Hewitt did, at a master class on the day before her performance at Christ Church Cathedral, giving listeners a clue to her own virtuosity. In her notes to a gifted student who performed a toccata Hewitt hadn’t played for many years, she gave hints at how she became such an outstanding performer. She sang; she conducted; she described a passage as “the language of sighs.” And she pointed out the bars in the score, where “you bring in all these voices (notes) and take down the other voices.”

Small wonder then that when Hewitt played in the cathedral last Saturday, the passion with which she interpreted the music of Bach, Beethoven, Scarlatti and Liszt was palpable. The big black Fazioli grand piano dominated the church platform, but the real living, breathing instrument in the room was Hewitt.

Raised in a musical family, the Ottawa-born pianist has been playing since the age of 3. She gained national prominence in 1985 when, at 27, she won the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition. Ever since, she has been branded as a premier interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach, but the truth is that Hewitt is a wide-ranging musician whose discography of more than 40 recordings includes composers from Schubert to Scarlatti to Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and Messiaen.

The evening’s five segments all made some reference to Italy, where Hewitt lives part-time and runs the Trasimeno Music Festival. She led off the recital – her first solo performance in Victoria — with a performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major, the performance of which won her the Toronto prize 30 years ago. Such crispness and forceful fingering in the opening movement brought to mind another word often associated with this musician: joy.

Hewitt introduced Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata with a story about how it was inspired by a sad farewell he had to his friend and supporter Archduke Rudolph in 1809 when the French bombarded Vienna. Hence the lament at the opening of the sonata, which Hewitt played with her whole person, as if she might have been a dancer, her fingers making footwork on the keyboard. Her ability to shift moods from light to dark, soft footfalls to ominous thunder suggestive of cannon fire is what gives her performances so much drama.

Following a few Bach arrangements (from a 2001 CD), Hewitt played Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, recorded for a forthcoming CD and chosen from the 555 short harpsichord pieces Scarlatti composed. She played four, including the K.87 in B minor, a contrapuntal piece played by many famous musicians.  With her strong round arms flying, Hewitt makes 18th-century music such as Scarlatti’s alive and breathing in the 21st century.

Franz Liszt’s incredible evocative Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) and his “Dante Sonata” with its powerful soundscape of hell brought the recital to a close. Returning for an encore, Hewitt switched gears with an achingly haunting yet transcendent playing of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. And then, with her one arm flying up off the treble end of the keyboard, and the other down off the bass end, the music seemed to release her.

A footnote: in the audience for the recital was a couple married in 1973 in Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, where Godfrey Hewitt was organist. Angela Hewitt, then 15, played at their wedding and clearly bestowed her joy on them, for they remain happily married 42 years later.

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