Angela Hewitt, Wigmore Hall, London

The bright-sounding Fazioli marque does not suit the opaque moods of the Romantic repertoire

Anna Picard
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:07

The siege mentality that had gripped Wigmore Hall since last month's disruption of the Jerusalem Quartet's lunchtime concert by anti-Israel protesters had dissipated by the time Angela Hewitt took to the stage on Wednesday.

Famous for its mild manners, Canada doesn't figure highly on most people's lists of objectionable countries, though there was plenty to object to in Hewitt's recital of Brahms and Schumann, most of it encased in the high-gloss polyester of a Fazioli grand piano.

Hewitt made her name playing Bach, with precise, measured yet deliberately lyrical performances of The Well-Tempered Clavier to gladden the heart of the harpsichord-phobic listener. Clarity was her goal, each voice of a four- or five-part fugue distinct and pure, hence the switch to Fazioli pianos in 2002. The match of artist to instrument has been fruitful, most particularly in Hewitt's Handel suites and her second recording of the Bach. But there is a world of difference between baroque keyboard music and piano music of the 1840s.

To the innocent listener, especially one with an interest in historical pianos and their vulnerable, time-worn beauty – the pearly brilliance of an Erard or the heavy, occluded glow of the Streicher Brahms played – it is mildly shocking how rarely a pianist, be they an advocate of Blüthner, Steinway, Bösendorfer or Yamaha, will choose their instrument with a view to the repertoire they are playing. Among period specialists, this is common practice. Of the current A-list concert pianists, only Andras Schiff routinely varies his choice of instrument. Indeed, according to Steinway's website, 98 per cent of the world's piano recitals are played on a Steinway.

Along with Herbie Hancock, Hewitt is now an unofficial brand ambassador for Fazioli, though its bright, uniform timbre cast the hypersensitive flutterings of her selection from Schumann's Bunte Blätter and Brahms's introspective Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann into garish High Definition instead of the half-light. Clarity is essential, but the constant semiquaver quiver of leaves-in-the-breeze figures (Drei Stücklein) is merely the background to the intimate, ardent expressions of the treble and bass voices, a pre-echo of Impressionism.

Hewitt has this music under her fingers, if not obviously in her soul. In a heroically demanding programme that culminated with Brahms's high-tensile Third Piano Sonata, there was barely a smudge or slip. Yet I found myself having to listen past the Fazioli's stridency for the poetry of her playing: the sharply gasped and immediately suppressed anguish of Schumann's Sehr langsam, the exquisite, pseudo-Baroque turns of Langsam and the chorale solemnity of Ziemlich langsam, on which Brahms crafted his variations while his mentor's sanity unravelled in an asylum.

In the final chord of Schumann's original, the Fazioli's long, preternaturally pure decay was enchanting. You could imagine how sweet the first of Brahms's Opus 119 Intermezzos might sound on it. In the Variations, however, the instrument acquired an unpleasantly percussive edge, with almost a jazz-funk twang. Hewitt's dynamic contrasts were too beady, too exam-candidate, the rubato liberally applied, while the grand swells glared and leered. The piece doesn't work. Its composer's frustrations are too evident, and beyond the biographical link to Schumann, and perhaps a desire to demonstrate that she has muscle enough to arm-wrestle Uchida and Argerich, I wondered why Hewitt chose to play it. The Scherzo in E flat minor was almost joyfully articulated, though still lacking in mystery and song.

There was a stronger sense of narrative in the five-movement Sonata, and a deeper range of colours, though still too much in the way of explanation and analysis. Hewitt's instinct to act as a tour guide, pointing each cross-rhythm in the first movement, finally ceded to a more instinctive style: softening the tone through the Andante espressivo and breathing through its extended final notes; ripening in the luxuriant melancholy of the Intermezzo before a fiery, virile Finale. But for poetry, soul, a sense of song, you need more than energy. And for a performer of Hewitt's intellectual ability, it seems perverse to turn one's back on the dappled sonorities Brahms and Schumann might have recognised in favour of the soulless high-gloss of modern perfection.

Next Week:

Anna Picard hears the Canadian wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct the LPO

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