In approaching Angela Hewitt’s rather standard selections (rec. 19-22 May 2014) of Franz Liszt, I wanted to capture the pianist’s own sense of a turning point in her appreciation of this many-faceted composer of musical ecstasies, heavenly and demonic. Hewitt admits to an initial distaste for the B Minor Sonata that became transformed by a realization by her teacher Jean-Paul Sevilla. So, I began my audition with a love-nocturne, the song of 1846 transformed as part of the second Year of Pilgrimage (Italy) into the famous Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, based on the passionate poem of unrequited love. To this demanding piece, Hewitt brings the requisite combination of flowery ornaments and brilliant cadenza passagework. The trill in thirds may reflect the fluctuations of a lover’s anguished heart. Liszt asks for a crescendo e rinforzando, then a kind of sighing release, ritenuto. Later, Hewitt must execute some huge periods that demand dolce or dolente retreats, the constant give-and-take of the emotive paradoxes of desire. That Hewitt can deliver a performance of potent dexterity in the momentous sixteenth note runs while maintaining a light hand and suave pedal assures me that Liszt has gained by her endeavors in more “classical” repertory.
The Sonnet 47 projects a restrained ardor, maintained in sighing filigree until the D Major climax, in which the poetry has the narrator utter the illumined name of Laura. The pungent upper register enjoys a series of cascades that Liszt utilizes as well in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Gently rocking and basking in rhetorical flourishes, the music from Hewitt assumes the character of a barcarolle. The most “shimmering” of the triptych, Sonnet 123 Hewitt confesses is her favorite. The music attempts “to move without moving,” given the spiritual stasis the poem describes. A series of contemplations of the beloved lead to C Major, the mode of the “sweeter concert” than any on earth a parallel to the Keats utterance about “unheard music.” Once more, Hewitt’s high register glistens with a pearly dew drawn from ecstatic mysticism and the sonic efforts of recording producer Ludger Boeckenhoff.
I decided to audition the Dante Sonata (1839; rev. 1858) prior to the B Minor Sonata, my having recently reviewed the survey of the former by Carlo Grante. Like her reading of the B Minor Sonata, Hewitt aims in Dante for heroism and grandeur of scale, in which even the sinister elements achieve a natural nobility of purpose. From opening triton and its evocation of Dante’s inscription to “abandon all hope,” we engage in a series of periodic meditations, in D Minor and later F-sharp Major that alternately cast us into the abyss yet find visions of plastic sympathy and possible redemption. Virgil has to remind Dante not to succumb to sympathy for the sinners; but, true to his poetic and amorous nature, the tragedy of Francesca dam Rimini and Paolo da Verruchio proves too alluring to dismiss. A series of mesmeric arpeggios captures the temptation an bliss of carnal desire, drawing us into a whirlpool—and a portrait of Satan himself—as thrilling as it proves damning. Then the tritone and martial sequence renews itself, a series of tolling bells that Poe assigns to the element of iron. The latter pages give us moments of intimacy even the face of a coarse fall from grace. Like his Dante Symphony, the Liszt Dante Sonata suddenly vibrates, tremolo, into a kind of beatific epilogue. That the final pages invoke unmitigated bravura does not diminish the colossal achievement that concludes Liszt’s Second Year of Pilgrimage.
After a rather reverberant opening foray, Hewitt enters upon leisurely exposition of the B Minor Sonata that embraces both a Phrygian and gypsy scale that declaim—and evolve organically—to a theme that wends its way to B Minor. Hewitt’s relatively slow tempo tends to emphasize the massive architecture as well as to underline the transitions to key changes, especially when D Major opens up a glorious vista. Liszt’s plastic technique, “transformation of theme,” takes its cue from Beethoven as well as Schubert, so the character of the music assumes multi-dimensionality, much in the manner the Dies Irae becomes a series of masks in Totentanz. Hewitt’s rendering of the cantando espessivo episode unfolds con amore, theatrical and eminently vocal. The music often cascades in liquid toccata filigree, urging the momentum forward, incalzando. The result of such insistence, block chords in declamation, creates a kind of antiphon between the forces of darkness and light rife with questions, recitativo, unanswered.
With the emergence of F-sharp Major Hewitt reveals the beatitude that likewise appeals to Cesar Franck. This “second movement” plays as a nocturne with light trills and dainty flourishes that aspire to the skies. Grandioso, the large theme means to transcend its material bonds, but even in its denouement we hear a call to earth, to those fateful Gs, this time intending to comment ironically, in the mood of Fuseli, in B-flat Minor counterpoint. Hewitt makes us feel, structurally, the modulation from B-flat Major back to B Minor with a syncopated ferocity to mark the recapitulation, and the power of her trill alone warrants a purchase price for the journey. The hammer blows of fate may not quite equal Horowitz’s demonism, but they certainly qualify as models for the Mahler Sixth. The Grandioso theme in B Major now carries a tragic resignation, mostly in liquid, singing terms. The double octaves of the Presto, in stretto, punish as well as exalt the performer. Hewitt holds the dominant seventh forever as her entry in the Andante sostenuto epilogue to Liszt’s epic spiritual journey. Hewitt comments that Liszt wanted those opening and closing chords—on G and B, respectively—to sound like muffled tympani. As a hymn to inexorable march of Fate, the Sonata stands as a monument to challenge the Beethoven legacy.