There is something eminently civilized about dropping into London’s Wigmore Hall for a lunchtime concert. Escaping the noisy, jostling crowds of Oxford Street, one can slip into a plushy seat and enjoy an hour of quality chamber music.

© Bernd Eberle
© Bernd Eberle

French intimacy was the theme of a recital given by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, in which she coupled two of Bach’s French Suites (BWV813 and BWV814) with a handful of miniatures by Chopin, pieces which were composed in the French capital (a city which Bach himself never visited).

Bach’s French Suites, while conceived on a smaller scale than their English and Italian counterparts, and intended for use in a family setting, are nonetheless full of stylised dances and great variety, by turns elegant and melancholy. Hewitt’s interpretations of Bach come highly-rated, and in the BWV 813 she displayed her characteristically mannered and elegant playing, with crisp articulation and phrasing, and extremely neat, understated ornamentation. In the ‘Courante’ she was careful to emphasise the syncopated measures, and pleasingly detached notes in the bass. Elsewhere in both Suites were glimpses of the interior architecture of the music, and the secondary melodic lines, and if some of the cadences in the slower movements seemed a touch contrived, there was always a strong sense of rhythmic lilt, and a spaciousness and nobility in the opening ‘Allemandes’, particularly in the first one. The final ‘Gigue’ of the first Suite was sprightly and crystalline, and the glittering tone of the upper registers of the Fazioli piano, which Hewitt favours, really suited this movement.

It is well-documented that Chopin regarded Bach as a musical god, and the works chosen for this programme shared some of the stylised and idealised elements of Bach’s suites: Chopin elevated both the Waltz and Mazurka form beyond their origins as dance music, and, indeed, he observed that the first set of Mazurkas he submitted for publication were “not for dancing”.

The A-flat Nocturne (Op 32 No. 2) has a charming dance-like motif in its opening measures before moving into a more agitated section. Here, with the fortissimo indication in the score, and a more lively tempo, Angela Hewitt was able to emphasise fully the more anguished elements. The reprise of the opening motif was the calm after the storm, with delicate ornamentation and a strong sense of the melodic line, before a beautiful closing cadence.

The Waltz, Op. 70, No. 1 was sparkling and extrovert, played almost tongue-in-cheek, while the first Mazurka of the programme (Op 33, No. 2) was rustic and rollicking, with a stamping left hand and plenty of humour at its close. By contrast, the second Mazurka was more refined, full of nostalgia and yearning.

The Prelude in A (Op 28, No. 7) falls between the melancholy Prelude in B minor and the highly agitated F sharp minor in the series, and, when heard in sequence, can be ethereal, almost disembodied. Hewitt opted for a very slow tempo in this ‘fragmentary’ Prelude, combined with a highly delicate touch and muted dynamics. The same ‘feathery’ touch was employed to great effect in the rapid passages of the soulful Waltz Op 64/2, while the left hand retained a wonderfully strong sense of the three-in-a-bar metre throughout.

The Grande Valse Brillante Op 18 was probably inspired by Weber’s ‘Invitation to the Dance’, and shares the same grandeur, and recurring refrain as the earlier work. It opens with a bugle call, and Hewitt retained that shiny, brass sound throughout the first theme. It was foot-tapping and energetic, with a ‘music hall’ humour in places, witty ornamentation and sparkling, virtuosic passages offset by swooning, lyrical measures: true salon music. The threat of the music disappearing in a puff of operatic smoke in the closing measures was cleverly managed by Angela Hewitt, before the final curtain fell with a series of dramatic fortissimo chords.

For an encore, Angela Hewitt selected another Nocturne, the lyrical Op 9, No. 2, delightfully rounding off a very popular and sold out concert.

****1