It was a dark a rainy day as I drove down to Chicago’s Symphony Center to hear Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt perform (February 10, 2013).
Ms. Hewitt is a relative late-comer to the concert piano world. She was named the prestigious Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year in 2006. Her world-class reputation has developed over the last decade or so and has mainly been based on her excellent recordings of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music.
Two of J.S. Bach’s French Suites and his Toccata in D Major were on the program so I naturally assumed that those pieces would be the highlight of my day. As expected, these works were played brilliantly with technical finesse. But, surprisingly, Hewitt’s beautifully-played Bach — I can’t imagine it being payed any better — was not the highlight of the afternoon. More on that below.
Interestingly, Ms. Hewitt does NOT perform on a Steinway grand piano as do about 95% of the world’s concert pianist. No, she uses her own Fazioli Concert Grand. I have long known of these Italian-made instruments by reputation but this was the first time I had a chance to hear one in action.
Played by Ms. Hewitt, the Fazioli was certainly impressive.
Steinways will remain the standard by which concert grands are judged but this Fazioli was ideally suited to Baroque and French pieces that Ms. Hewitt was playing yesterday. I think that I would still favor a Steinway for composers like Beethoven, Liszt or Brahms since Steinways are noted for their deep, resonate bass and have a full, rich sound that is ideally suited to much of the 19th-century’s big-piano repertoire.
A few weeks ago, pianist Louis Lortie performed a recital of Liszt transcriptions of Wagner’s orchestral music. For that sort of massive playing it would be hard to turn away from a Steinway.
Having said that, let’s talk about the afternoon’s highlight: French music from the turn of the 20th Century. As with Bach’s keyboard music — which very rarely thunders — the Fazioli Concert Grand is ideally suited to the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) since with this French repertoire clarity and tone are the primary requirements.
Interestingly, from a programming standpoint, Ms. Hewitt chose two non-Bach pieces which drew their inspiration if not more from the style of the Baroque keyboard masters like Bach and Couperin neither of whom ever played a piano. During their lifetime the harpsichord was the dominant instrument. When we play their music on the piano we are always making compromises to make them sound appropriately pianistic.
Debussy’s Pour le piano was written in 1901. It is in three movements with titles drawn right from the Baroque era: Prelude, Sarabande and Toccata. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin from 1917 has six Baroque-inspired movements: Prelude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet and Toccata.
François Couperin (1668-1733) is no longer a familiar name even to most piano players. I learned to appreciate his music in Dorothy Lane’s harpsichord class when I was a student at Northwestern University. He was a genius almost the equal of J.S. Bach (1685-1750).
Angela Hewitt’s performance of these 20th Century pieces certainly drew on her expertise in playing Baroque music. Everything was performed with a clear and gorgeous tone. Her wonderful performance made it easy to think of many “What ifs?” What if J.S. and François had been born at the end of the 19th Century instead of the end of the 17th? What if they had a modern concert grand on which to write their music? It is very easy to imagine them composing music like this and that, I guess, is the point.
Thank you Angela Hewitt for a memorable recital that matched your phenomenal skills with the right instrument to make this music come alive.
For her encore, Ms. Hewitt performed Debussy’s Clair de lune. A beautiful way to end the concert: