Angela Hewitt review – brain-teasing Bach and Beethoven's bite

St George’s, Bristol
Hewitt’s celebration of Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year, packaged with music by Bach, a source of his inspiration, was brilliant, exuberant and expressive

Beethoven’s admiration for Bach knew no bounds. So in this year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth, Beethoven would doubtless have felt flattered by pianist Angela Hewitt’s interleaving of works by these two composers. He might, nevertheless, have been surprised by her focus on three different sets of his variations – with a fourth set as encore – mostly conceived to please the public and to make the most of publishing opportunities. Hewitt is currently committing an album of Beethoven variations to disc for general delectation.

This St George’s recital began with the Four Duets from Bach’s Clavier-Übung III, attuning the ear to the most basic of keyboard textures: two contrapuntal lines, voiced one for each hand. In reality more intricate and knotty in their construction than anything in his two-part inventions or two-part fugues, this was Bach writing little brain-teasers. Hewitt brought her characteristic clarity of delivery to these, and then to the first Partita in B flat, BWV 825, its Sarabande declamatory and the minuets elegant in their simplicity.

Angela Hewitt in Bristol.
Elegant simplicity … Angela Hewitt in Bristol. Photograph: Stephen Shepherd/The Guardian

C minor was always a significant key for Beethoven, associated with some of his most dramatic utterances. The 32 Variations on an original theme – no opus number and now classified WoO80 – are no exception; the chaconne-like chromatic bass line confers the work with an often tragic dignity, heightened in Hewitt’s interpretation. After the interval, in both the F major variations, Op 34, and the Eroica variations, Op 35, dynamic range and tempi were again fastidiously observed, the pieces’ ingenuity and virtuosity undeniable and the fugal opening to Op 35’s finale making explicit the connection with Bach.

Yet, ironically, the variation form by its very nature ended up being too unvarying and – with the seven variations on God Save the King raising laughs and taking the tally to 60 – unremitting. Gradually, the bright sound of Hewitt’s preferred Fazioli instrument also palled. Her most relaxed and brilliant playing came in Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 971, its outer movements realising a fleet exuberance and the central D minor Andante a poignantly expressive beauty.

• Angela Hewitt plays the Four Duets, Italian Concerto and other works by Bach at SJE Arts, Oxford, on 26 March.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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