Disarmingly, Angela Hewitt mentions at the start of her booklet notes to this album that, as a teenager, she heard Liszt’s B minor Sonata and 'came away thinking what an awful piece it was, and wondering why anyone would want to play it. It just seemed a vehicle for banging the piano, and meandered on without any sense of purpose.' We've probably all endured off-putting performances like that, and my recent experience of hearing the sonata in a transcription for violin did nothing to further its cause. But Hewitt then goes on to describe her Damascene conversion when she heard the sonata played by a pianist who, by inference from what she says, appreciated its range of utterance, its spectrum of colour and its structural niceties as well as its pyrotechnics.
Her own performance here in this all-Liszt recital is one of similar understanding and panache. She recognises that the sonata is a work of emotional extremes, but of extremes that are close-knit and have a clear expressive focus. For all the dazzling fireworks that Liszt ignites there are passages where the music turns in on itself, musing, rhapsodising, at times almost fading into the ether. This is where Hewitt’s interpretation scores over those that veer from one dramatic incident to another without paying due attention to the shaping of the quieter moments of bliss and repose. The musical contours here, whether the equivalent of softly rolling hills or of daunting Alpine peaks, are seamlessly drawn together in a continuous, flowing musical landscape—a landscape with its towering landmarks, to be sure, and niftily articulated in the central fugue but altogether conceived with a secure grasp of the music’s organic nature.
The Dante Sonata—or, strictly speaking, 'fantasia quasi sonata'—is the other big work here, and, like the B minor, is impressively laid out by Hewitt in a broad, sweeping romantic arc but with a rapt sensibility in those episodes where Liszt seems to be reflecting not just on the forbidding furore of the Inferno but on those human failings summed up by Dante’s line 'There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.' The blend of passion and lyricism in the three Petrarch Sonnets (the original poetic versions of which are helpfully printed in the booklet) adds a further dimension to a well-considered and stimulating disc.