Paul E. Robinson
Musical Toronto, Canada
March 2015

Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt has played so much Bach and played it so well she has become known as one of the great Bach players of her time. In fact, her Bach reputation is so great that it is often assumed that she plays little else. Nothing could be further from the truth and this new CD provides conclusive evidence.

Hewitt herself is very much aware of her type-casting as a Bach specialist and sets the record straight in her excellent liner notes. She points out that she played the Liszt Sonata in winning both the CBC Talent Festival and the Viotti Competition in 1978. She also played the Dante Sonata in the final round of the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition. But when she was young she thought the Liszt Sonata 'an awful piece.' Only when she heard it played by Jean-Paul Sevilla, her teacher at the time, did she realize that it was a masterpiece. She is now unstinting in her praise of Liszt’s music:

'The B minor Sonata is quite simply one of the greatest works ever written for solo piano by any composer. I am as moved performing it as I am when playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations.'

To be sure, Liszt wrote a lot of music that was clearly meant to show off his gifts as a virtuoso pianist—not that this is necessarily a bad thing—and some of the symphonic poems are tedious in the extreme. But I agree with Angela Hewitt that the B minor Sonata is a work of genius and so too are many smaller pieces for the piano. And A Faust Symphony is an extraordinary achievement. To see and hear how powerful it can be get a copy of Bernstein’s impassioned 1976 performance with the Boston Symphony (EuroArts DVD 2072078).

There have been many fine recordings of Liszt’s B minor Sonata. For sheer technical dexterity the recordings by Horowitz, Gilels, Richter, Bolet and Argerich would be at the top of my list. But the piece is not only a technical challenge. It also requires a poetic sense and a sensitivity to colour. For these qualities I turn to artists such as Barenboim, Brendel or Zimerman.

For her part Hewitt is not going to dazzle you with the speed of her octaves but she gets inside the music in a way that few others have done before her. To say that she plays beautifully is an understatement; her touch is exquisite in the quiet passages and her phrasing can be heart-rending. By the same token there is no denying that Hewitt sounds somewhat tame beside the hair-raising abandon of Richter’s 1996 Aldeburgh Festival performance (BBC BBCL 4146-2). Indeed, Richter tosses off the piece a good five minutes faster than Hewitt and the playing is simply white-hot. But there is room for a more restrained approach, and Hewitt’s is among the best of them.

The three Petrarch Sonnets were originally songs with piano accompaniment but Liszt reworked them for piano solo. Appropriately, the song texts are included in the booklet so the listener can appreciate the inspiration for this music. In her notes Hewitt expresses particular admiration for Sonetto 123 and its “magical” image of complete stillness. Hewitt the pianist realizes this effect to perfection with careful pedaling and a luminous recording.

The Dante Sonata was inspired by a poem of Victor Hugo, which itself was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is dramatic music and Hewitt plays it with the utmost intensity.

With this new album Angela Hewitt reminds us once again that her range as an artist goes well beyond Johann Sebastian Bach.