Classical: Passion underplayed

ANGELA HEWITT WIGMORE HALL LONDON
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The Independent Culture
ANGELA HEWITT is what you might call a highly groomed pianist, renowned for her gleaming, precise playing of Bach - she has just released her recording of the first book of the 48 Preludes and Fugues.

Opening her Wigmore recital on Friday with four pairs of these - the A flat major and its equivalent minor, and the A major and minor, she uncharacteristically suffered some small memory lapses, possibly triggered by a spate of unduly noisy coughing in the audience. There were no more accidents in a splendid choice of programme, yet Hewitt never quite overcame an element of self-consciousness. Nor could we forget her rather startling image, armoured, rather than dressed, in a stunning outfit of shimmering gold that seemed to have taken its inspiration from one of the neighbouring super-kitsch furnishing stores.

There was nothing very alarming about Hewitt's treatment of Schumann's fiery G minor Sonata. She had brought in a Bosendorfer - lighter in tone than a Steinway, and well-suited to the generous acoustic of this hall - but she didn't always draw an ideally full sound from it. Not only was her left hand underbalanced in strong passages, particularly in the flamboyant scherzo, but her soft playing, though certainly delicate, was also a bit undernourished. She also had a distinct tendency to be coy at the beginning and ending of a phrase and it seemed a puzzling affectation to start the prestissimo coda of the finale hesitantly, as if searching for something in the dark.

One of Hewitt's specialities is Messiaen, and after the interval she played six of his early Preludes. Her cool, transparent delicacy seemed ideal for the rainbow-like chord clusters of "Les sons impalpables du reve", but however soft some of the other pieces were meant to be, I still wished for more depth in the piano sound and greater projection. When called upon to be dramatic, in the punchy opening of "Un reflet dans le vent", she was fine.

She was also razor-sharp in the stern admonitions of Liszt's Dante Sonata, nor ineffective in the way she opened the whirlwind section in smoky obscurity. But there's no substitute for a performance of this visionary work that is overwhelming and all-consuming, and though Hewitt played it very well, passionate abandon is not part of her artistic make-up.

Surprisingly, the thing I enjoyed best in the whole evening was her third and final encore, a simple transcription of Richard Strauss's song "Morgen!", in which she spun out an exquisitely protracted singing line to perfection.

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