Playing on her customary Fazioli, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt devised an eclectic programme. Ever since her triumph at the International Bach Piano Competition in her native Toronto in 1985 the music of Bach has been the bedrock of her repertoire and in 2001 The Guardian declared she was “the pre-eminent Bach pianist of our time”. In recent years her programmes have included Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel, and for her Turner Sims debut in 2009 she turned her attention to Schumann.

Angela Hewitt © Maria Teresa de Luca
Angela Hewitt
© Maria Teresa de Luca

Last Thursday her recital began with Bach’s Partita no. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 – a work, along with its five companion pieces, that represents one of the composer’s few compositions printed during his lifetime. To the opening bars of the Sinfonia Hewitt applied a forthright tempo, but one which acknowledged the music’s ceremony. She brought out the lyricism of the ensuing Andante and made transparent the two-part writing of the fugue with characteristic clarity. The Allemande was restrained, her ear always attuned to subtle shading, and its decorative figures delicately achieved. Softer tones in repeated passages may have become a conspicuous habit by the Sarabande, but here it was beautifully telling, its introspection making the Rondeaux all the more striking for its humour and where Bach’s wide leaps proved no barrier to Hewitt’s technique. In the concluding Capriccio she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself and revelled in its extrovert character, almost making us believe we were in C major.

This key launched the first of a trio of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti – Bach’s prolific contemporary. Had he arranged his keyboard works in conveniently titled collections, in the manner of Bach, more of his sonatas (all 555 of them) might be better known. That said, Hewitt made a well-chosen selection that illuminated both Scarlatti’s infinite variety of invention and the prodigiously gifted Maria Barbara, Queen of Spain, for whom these works were written. They transfer brilliantly from harpsichord to the modern piano and their difficulties presented no problem for Hewitt who dispatched the lively Sonata in C major K159, with its recurring hunting motif, with ease. She seemed equally comfortable with the awkward hand-crossings of the toccata-like Sonata in D major, K96 and, between them, brought out the interior quality and beauty of line of the Sonata in B minor, K87.

Then on to Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor BWV903 where she seemed to underline its narrative quality, forsaking homicidal tempos favoured by some for a more relaxed approach that emphasised its declamatory features. Virtuosity for its own sake was not her agenda here and its structure unfolded with clear signposts until one singular flamboyant gesture from her brought the work to an end.

After the interval, Hewitt opened with Liszt – that life-long admirer of Bach to whom he paid homage in several keyboard works and transcriptions. In the Petrarch Sonnets from Années de Pèlerinage: Deuxième année tribute is paid, not to Bach, but the great Italian 14th century poet in three works that originally began life as songs. Hewitt drew out their lyrical quality and expanded her dynamic range, producing in Sonetto 47 del Petrarca the first sustained forte playing of the evening. She drew from the piano’s upper register startlingly bright tones yet was unfailingly sensitive to the poet’s ardour. In Sonetto 104 she produced thrilling decorative pearls and in the closing bars of Sonetto 123 produced achingly beautiful appoggiaturas, each one increasingly heart-rending.

Ravel’s piano music also draws on the past, and none more notably than in the glittering tribute to Liszt, Jeux d'eau. It was, however, the 18th century French keyboard tradition that provided the stimulus for Ravel’s Sonatine whose melodic clarity in the opening Modéré Hewitt brought out in a performance that made light of its technical challenges. She created elegant lines in the Menuet and convincing tempo changes in the toccata-like third movement, her playing utterly persuasive.

Her recital ended with Chabrier’s fearsomely tricky Bourrée fantasque, a piece that appeared to be unfamiliar to many in the capacity audience sitting near me. This colourful piece (all dare and dexterity) takes some nerve and fingers of steel, and while much of her performance was convincing there were odd moments when I wondered if she’d set herself too arduous a task. It was good to hear this seldom-performed work and particularly one that closed in such an uproarious style. The evening ended with Debussy’s Clair de lune (Suite bergamasque) given as a much-appreciated encore.