This the final instalment in Angela Hewitt’s cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas for Hyperion. I haven’t heard any of the previous instalments and, such is the excellence of this release, I now very much regret that. The booklet essay is by Ms Hewitt and it is full of insights into the music from a performer’s perspective.
The first movement of the mighty ‘Hammerklavier’ mixes heroic and lyric music. Hewitt embraces this dual challenge: her playing displays strength and a fine sense of drama but also plenty of subtlety. Beethoven covers an awful lot of ground in this movement and Angela Hewitt leads us unerringly through its course. Her tempi seem to be to be judiciously chosen. All in all, it’s a terrific account of the movement which leaves one keen to hear more. Sandwiched as it is between two really substantial movements, the Scherzo, which here plays for just 3:02, seems tiny by comparison. However, Ms Hewitt’s notes point out just how much is packed into this brief movement. Her playing has great energy and also plenty of light and shade.
The slow movement is marked Adagio sostenuto, appassionato e con molto sentimento. This is intense, far-reaching music; indeed, it’s Olympian. Through tempi that are again ideally chosen, Angela Hewitt finds the graceful side of the music, allowing the phrases to move forward and to sing. I was deeply impressed by her account of this movement, not least the repose that she finds in the closing bars. She makes the Largo opening of the finale sound like an improvised fantasia. When Beethoven launches into the fugue, she plays with lightness, drive and clarity—one would expect nothing less from so seasoned a Bach interpreter. Beethoven’s fugal writing is very complex and varied; Angela Hewitt lays it all out marvellously. Throughout all these fugal arguments her playing is spirited and clear-sighted. It’s a tremendous way to conclude her masterly account of this huge sonata.
The home key of Op 111 is C minor, a key of special significance for Beethoven—one only has to think of the Fifth Symphony or, indeed, of the Third Piano Concerto in which Beethoven took the concerto form to a very serious level. I was interested to learn from her notes that Angela Hewitt, deterred by hearing a lot of performances she considered unsatisfactory, didn’t begin to learn the sonata until as recently as 2018. Even now, she regards it as a ‘special occasion’ piece.
In the first movement she generates a true feeling of suspense in the Maestoso introduction. Then, the fugue-like allegro erupts dramatically. She plays this music with great drive and tension; the performance is thrilling.
Angela Hewitt says this of the Arietta: Adagio movement: 'A feeling of peace—but peace that is way up there on the highest plane—must be communicated'. Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and, therefore, the poetry of Walt Whitman is much on my mind at present and as I listened to Angela Hewitt’s delivery of the opening, I thought of the Whitman words that open the symphony’s finale: ‘O vast rondure, swimming in space’. That is what Hewitt’s perfectly weighted voicing of Beethoven’s sublime music suggested to me; her playing is effortlessly spacious. Four variations follow, all expertly characterised in this performance; Hewitt’s booklet notes is as informative a guide to the variations as her playing. It’s an indication of the sheer scale of the movement that by the time Beethoven has finished the variations (around 11:00) he is only just about halfway through what he has to say. In the music that follows he is at his most exploratory, pushing the boundaries. He lived for some six years after completing this sonata and I don’t know if he ever contemplated another piano sonata but as it stands, this huge slow movement is a wonderful valediction to the piano sonata form. The whole thing is superbly controlled by Angela Hewitt. She accomplishes the concluding part of the journey, to the key of C major, quite wonderfully. By the time we get to the movement’s end she and Beethoven have taken us to somewhere that is worlds away from the sonata’s turbulent opening.
Angela Hewitt’s pianism is on an exalted level throughout both of these sonatas. I was enthralled by her performances and I also learned much from her insightful essay. She plays, as always, a Fazoli piano. Readers may remember that in February 2020 the Fazoli instrument on which she’d played for, I believe, 17 years was irreparably damaged. It was a unique piano with four pedals andshe felt its loss keenly. Over the next few months, the manufacturers built her a new one and I presume that this is the instrument which was used on this recording. It sounds very good indeed: the tone is quite bright—pleasingly so—and positive, with a firm bass. The instrument has been very successfully recorded by Ludger Böckenhoff.
This is an outstanding disc which has made me keen to seek out earlier volumes in Angela Hewitt’s Beethoven cycle.