Angela Hewitt, as they used to say in old-school classical CD reviews, is currently at the peak of her pianistic powers, and having just released a well-upholstered and characteristically thoughtful recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue now turns her attention to Franz Liszt—his sempiternal B Minor Sonata placed alongside the earlier Dante Sonata and Petrarca Sonnets.
B Minor was a significant key for both Bach and Liszt, and Liszt’s mass of sound integrates fugal grandeur within a narrative framework that delights in extreme shifts of mood; harmonic non sequiturs and melodic flashbacks are glued together by rhythmic markers in the sand. With fingers expertly primed to unpick the inner workings of Liszt’s fugal writing, Hewitt is also on top of the overall trajectory of Liszt’s large-scale dramatics. Never ostentatious or showy, her mission, apparently, is to show that the B Minor Sonata adds up to more than a sequence of grandstanding set pieces. Hewitt fesses up in her booklet notes that when, in her teens, she first encountered the Sonata she came away thinking “what an awful piece,” but she enters its world with the zeal of a reformed smoker. Could some of the descending passagework near the opening have been neater? I’d say so, but the spectrum of tonal colour Hewitt wheedles from her keyboard immediately impresses. Climaxes roar. The section marked cantando espressivo is massaged tenderly. Hewitt portrays Liszt in the round. The Dante Sonata is probably less of a piece than its great B Minor sibling, but Hewitt paints it in comparably differentiated, vibrant colours. After all, this is a piece that invites us to mosey around hell itself before tasting paradise, and Hewitt sets about Liszt’s gothic, flattened fifth harmonies like a Rottweiler scenting tritonal blood; but her sure-footed sense of Liszt’s overall structural arch keeps the performance focused and rooted. As Hewitt points out, the Tre Soneti di Petrarca began as songs, which Liszt re-imagined as solo piano works that would eventually be slotted into his cycle Années de Pèlerinage. And this music is clearly exceptionally close to Hewitt’s heart. Sonetto 104 overwhelms the senses, the thundering passions of the central section breaking to reveal sighing lyricism, while the motionless proto-Satiesque harmonies of Sonetto 123 are allowed just to be—after Bach and Liszt, Hewitt ought next turn her attention towards Morton Feldman.