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Angela Hewitt, Mists and Fog

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Debussy, Solo Piano Music, A. Hewitt

(released on October 9, 2012)
Hyperion CDA67898 | 79'25"

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Bach, Keyboard Works, A. Hewitt

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Ravel, Complete Solo Piano Music, A. Hewitt
Angela Hewitt's recitals in the area are not to be missed, especially when she plays Bach, which is her specialty. Her last few appearances -- in 2012, 2009, 2006, and 2003 -- have been spaced apart by a few years, so her recital on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society, felt like a luxury. It was, once again, Hewitt's Bach that made the deepest impression. Two French Suites, not generally the most complicated of Bach's keyboard music, were each strikingly nuanced, with lovely embellishments, revoicings, and dynamic shifts added on each repeat. In both suites, the little dances in the optional slot -- especially the Gavotte and Polonaise in no. 6, the Gavotte and Louré in no. 5 -- were the most pleasing, animated by a dancing rhythmic pulse and kept crisp and bright, not obsessed with speed. That is, the dance types in which Bach seems most to have preserved the feel of the dances associated with them, had the feel of dances.

While no. 6 felt just slightly labored, its Gigue not quite tripping along, for example, some of its plainness may have been due to the instrument. Hewitt favors the Fazioli piano, which has a rather bright, even pinging sound that Hewitt spends considerable effort controlling and profiting from its soft, sweet side. This time her piano seemed not to be enjoying the wild shifts of temperature in recent days, going badly out of tune by the end of the first half. Even after a technician spent the entire intermission fine-tuning it, the Fazioli again had some questionable notes creep in during the second half, again especially at the top. No. 5, on the second half, was more brilliant, especially its Courante and Gigue taken at a bubbling clip, even with embellishments gilding the lines. In the last Bach piece, the D major toccata (BWV 912), Hewitt used a broader scope, a bigger touch at the keys and more sustaining pedal, to show off the range of fantasy at play: long strokes in the imitative section, fragments of evaporating thoughts in the improvisatory section, and an irrepressibly happy jig fugue at the end.

Hewitt's performances of Debussy and Ravel have not convinced me as completely. The control and variation of touch, the careful phrasing, the musical sense of line are all immaculate, but the big climaxes feel underpowered, with some vulnerability in Hewitt's technical grasp. Both of the pieces performed here look back to the Baroque suite, a pleasing programming conceit. Hewitt had all of the finesse needed for Debussy's suite Pour le piano, creating murky fogs and mists with sections of the Prélude, even making the most believable harp-like sound on those whole-tone swooshes. Unfortunately, the Sarabande turned a little soporific, lacking enough strength at the high points, and the Toccata seemed just a little insecure where it should knock your socks off (again, the piano's intonation problems probably did not help).

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, Pianist Hewitt warms to her task (Washington Post, February 11)
On the second half was Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and it was much the same as when Hewitt played it in Baltimore last year: packed with interesting details, some surprising shimmering effects in the final bars of the Prélude, meticulous handling of each curl of the Fugue, a quirky Forlane. Missing again was the top edge of power, lots of crunchy punch in the Rigaudon and a sharp-touched Toccata at the end, just without a daring sense of bravura. The encore, Debussy's milky-lighted Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque, played to Hewitt's strengths.

The next concert on the WPAS season is the much-anticipated visit by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (February 12, 8 pm) to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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