The name Franz Liszt conjures up pianistic showmanship of devilishly difficult bravura pieces that have enthralled audiences for nearly 200 years. Many pianists fall easily under this spell, but Angela Hewitt is certainly not one of them. Her new recording and her first brave foray into Liszt territory is the most unforgiving, immensely difficult B Minor Sonata, 30 minutes long in one single movement that can easily lapse into aimless banging on the piano, sound and fury signifying nothing from a lesser hand. Technical brilliance almost taken for granted, her approach is essentially analytical, fully understanding the structure, the relationships of parts to the whole, the thematic, harmonic and rhythmical subtleties, avoiding excesses so the work feels an integral whole and shines in all its majesty.
The essence of Liszt in Hewitt’s words, 'Nobility of spirit and depth of expression,' is also manifest in the second major item here, written during his Années de pèlerinage in Italy, the Dante Sonata, its program much inspired by the Inferno, giving ample room for the pianist’s unbridled imagination in depicting the horrors of hell and the exquisite tenderness of 'Nessun maggior dolore/Che ricordarsi nel tempo felice' (Dante’s Inferno), of recalling past happiness in time of pain. The wonderful tremolo at the high end of the keyboard representing unattainable Paradiso is especially poignant and moving.
In between these two mountain peaks there is a valley of heavenly peace, the three Sonetti del Petrarca, whose love poems Liszt set into music for his beloved Countess Marie, played with languid gentleness and throbs of passion. All this adds up to another triumph in Ottawa-born Hewitt’s extraordinary career.