Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dance to the music of time

Angela Hewitt (at left) made her Celebrity Series debut in Jordan Hall last Sunday riding a wave of interest in her highly personal interpretations of Bach (she's recorded just about all the keyboard music). So I was slightly surprised to find only one suite by the great master on what seemed a wildly varied program. And when I heard that opening performance (of the so-called "English" Suite No. 6), I was struck immediately by the sense that I was at times listening to Beethoven, and at other times to Fauré or Ravel - the composers filling out the rest of the program.

Clearly this was music-making of a highly personal nature indeed; one might, in fact, have to think a bit to come up with composers more seemingly opposed. The thread pulling the four together, however, proved to be Hewitt's deep interest in dance as a musical mode. Her Beethoven choice was the early Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, which still sparkles with some of Haydn's whimsy, and which she gave a distinctive lilt; and her choices from Fauré were the glittering Valse-caprices, and from Ravel the famous "Le tombeau de Couperin," which is itself a tribute to the baroque keyboard suite (only French, not German).

So there was a formal architecture to the program - and of course one often hears a performer "discovering" earlier influences in later works of the same form; one can well imagine hearing echoes of Bach in the Ravel, for instance. But can one really reverse time's arrow, and conjure echoes of Ravel and Beethoven in Bach? This might be an amiable enough academic exercise, but it jarred in actual performance; we were all too aware of sudden, willful shifts between German sternness and plush French romanticism in the early portions of the English Suite. Once Hewitt moved on to the more "dancing" gavottes and closing gigue, however, she was suddenly on surer, and more charming, footing. We've become used to the Glenn-Gould vision of Bach as baroque mystic, and Hewitt's emphasis on dance rhythms brings him lightly down to the earth (where it turns out he can actually cut a rug).

Intriguingly, Hewitt made her claims for dance at the keyboard most compelling in her take on Beethoven; true, the sonata chosen is something of a syncopated special case, but she hardly stinted on the piece's complexity, and her unusually singing lilt was convincing (particularly in the opening Allegro): beneath the oft-appreciated dialogue between Beethoven and Haydn, one could also hear a second conversation going on with Bach.

I'm not familiar with the Fauré Valse-caprices, but in Hewitt's hands they sounded appropriately dazzling - and one did sense that in a disciplined French romanticism lay, perhaps, her actual spiritual home (she's also recorded all the Ravel keyboard music). The "Tombeau de Couperin" (famous as both a keyboard and orchestral suite) proved, as one might expect, less wistful than some interpretations (each "dance" is dedicated not only to Couperin but to a lost comrade in World War I), but this is actually in alignment with Ravel's own wishes, who once commented that "the dead are sad enough in their eternal silence." Most sparkling of the set were the graceful "Forlane" and "Menuet," and Hewitt brought things to a brilliant close with a truly tripping "Tocatta." For her encores she turned to Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" - reminding us that even this delicately poignant elegy is actually a dance - and a swift, gently meditative take on Bach's famous "Prelude in C Major" from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which proved a deft way of bringing the concert full circle.

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