Having heard renowned Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt praised rapturously more than once, I wondered if she would fully live up to such fulsome praise. I am delighted to say that my own belated first encounter with her artistry at the Celebrity Series of Boston at Jordan Hall on Friday, December 2, was a revelation that I will long remember. As she initially made her reputation with her playing of Johann Sebastian Bach, it was no surprise that he was one of the two composers on her program. The other, in an unusual pairing, was Claude Debussy. The two composers were alternated, making it easier to see how the later one often drew inspiration from the Baroque as well as showing how some aspects of Hewitt’s Bach cross-fertilized her performance of the vastly different Debussy.
In the opening French Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major of Bach, the pianist’s gifts for this repertoire were immediately apparent: her pearly tone which rendered every polyphonic voice pellucid; the rock-solid rhythm giving the music a strong but never rigid backbone; and her dynamics, which simply stated what is implied on the page. As the piano has greater sustaining power than the harpsichord, a pianist must have a comprehensive command of articulation in this literature, and Hewitt’s is most impressive. The merry romp of the fourth suite’s Courante provided a fine example in the contrast of legato right hand and articulated left hand. The artist didn’t stint on expressivity, either. The Sarabande was beautifully pensive; Hewitt showed how a simple ascending scale could be made into a moving experience in her gifted hands. Moreover, in the concluding Gigue she clearly was having fun, which made it easy for the audience to do the same.
Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque followed, most of whose pieces “tip their hats” to the Baroque and simultaneously cultivate the style soon-to -be-christened “musical impressionism.” The Prélude, in particular, showed this dichotomy: some sections’ texture was as clear as the preceding Bach, while others used splashes of pedal color to paint musical gestures in a typically nineteenth-century style. In the Menuet Hewitt imparted a sly humor with her slightly off-balance opening theme; here too her articulation was delectable. She opted not to go the individualistic route in the overwhelmingly popular Clair de lune but simply used her highly nuanced touch to produce such a ravishing account it would be very hard to quibble. The many intimate passages were velvet and satin, while the bigger moments retained the sheen of sterling silver. The fully voiced chordal passages could as well have been polyphony, the melody simply “first among equals,” and the many arpeggios liquid and diaphanous. The Passepied, while not being in triple time as it would be in the Baroque, had an appropriate energy; the clopping accompaniment evoked a horseback journey through various landscapes. The artist provided a lesson in the differing types of staccato.
Next came Bach’s French Suite No. 6 in E Major, exhibiting all the virtues heard earlier in Suite No. 4. Additionally, the Sarabande illustrated the use of trills as ornamentation, to be sure, but also as a means of enhancing the movement’s expressivity. The “unusual” movement, Polonaise, was a simple and modest one, and Hewitt gave us an appropriately straightforward account, an effective “palate-cleanser” for the movements around it. The succeeding Bourrée was a thematic cousin to the Polonaise, but its mood was rollicking high spirits and featured a stimulating repartee between the two hands.
The second half began with Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Its Allemande was not unlike those of the fourth and sixth suites heard earlier, but the pianist allowed herself slightly more rhythmic freedom on repeats this time, always well within the bounds of le bon goût, that rather elusive musical concept inadequately translated as “good taste.” The Gavotte, one of the most familiar of Bach’s keyboard pieces, had an attractive swagger in Hewitt’s hands and featured somewhat more ornamentation on repeats than we had previously heard. The brilliant Gigue was nothing short of a tour de force, but Hewitt‘s virtuosity was always the servant of the music. The opening had such a wondrous lightness that I envisioned fairy entourages dancing for Oberon and Titania. On repeat, however, it became much bolder, the most greatly contrasted repeat we heard from any of the suites. If the final cadence was hugely emphatic, one could forgive the pianist a bit of Romantic-style bravura after such a thrilling performance.
We returned to Debussy with his three-movement Suite: Pour le piano. The Prélude opened fiercely but soon subsided into a marvelously veiled sound, though its energy remained unabated. The great chordal passages had a steely brilliance, capped by glissandi fortissimi played in the grand manner. The beautiful, Satie-esque Sarabande was characterized by Hewitt’s direct, unfussy playing, though she did take a little time to savor the marvelous passage of parallel dominant 7th chords. She also used her subito piano to fine effect. Her rendition of the Toccata had the same dichotomy heard in Suite Bergamasque’s Prélude: the clarity and delicacy of harpsichord-playing contrasted with washes of color. Regarding the latter, however, there are several passages where the composer’s rapid-fire sequences of complex harmonies perhaps unintentionally become such “washes” at the specified very fast tempo. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any pianist who could clarify these passages except by making too great a sacrifice, i.e., choosing a slower tempo that loses the quicksilver brilliance that is the essence of the piece. Hewitt did not buck this trend, but opted for the lesser of two evils. Nonetheless, hers remained a highly accomplished and memorable rendering of the suite.
The final piece on the program — and the only one not attached to a suite — was Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse which, as the program notes aptly stated, had roots in Baroque art rather than music. The composer was inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting “Pilgrimage to Cythera” (the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love). Once again Hewitt’s sovereign command of touch and dynamic nuance was tellingly employed, this time illustrating multiple types of joy — everything from barely restrained simmering to ecstatic proclamations. The symbolically swelling chords of the second theme managed, at their climactic recapitulation, to be both grandly expansive and caressing. (The passionately rising and falling arpeggios supporting the chords may have had something to do with it.) At the conclusion, the frenzied hammering of Lydian A-major chords and the wild plunge to the bottom note of the piano quickly elicited a standing ovation.
After a demanding program performed with such focused concentration, it was generous of the artist to give us even the one encore: “Golliwogg’s Cake Walk” from Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite. (The composer gave English titles.) For this French conception of ragtime, Hewitt gave us deliciously sassy and rambunctious outer sections and impeccable comic timing in the more laid-back middle section, spoofing Tristan und Isolde.
There were some striking parallels between this fine recital and that of Hewitt’s countryman, Peter Hill, on October 11 at Boston Conservatory. In the latter, Hill also featured only two composers: Bach and Olivier Messiaen (whose early works were influenced by Debussy). Though their styles are hardly identical, both pianists have rare control of nuance and color as well as a penetrating perception of counterpoint. In October I declared that I longed to hear what Hill would make of the occasional mainstream piece. Conversely, it would be fascinating to hear how Hewitt would play Messiaen and his protégés. But in the end, one expects rich rewards from her in any repertoire she chooses, thanks to her rare combination of immaculate technique, powerful intellect, and sheer joy of sharing music she clearly loves.