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More than a "Bach Specialist",
This review is from: Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music (Audio CD)
Taking a break from her vast Bach cycle for Hyperion Records, Angela Hewitt puts her mind and fingers to the very different musical challanges of Maurice Ravel and the French Romantic style. Well, all here is not completely divergent from Bach's music as Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" is a "Bach-like suite" containing a prelude, fugue, menuet and toccata - but, of course, not sounding anything like Bach really! With either composer in mind, Angela Hewitt is known for delving deep into a composer's life and music to emerge with the purest, most representative essence of each work. Accordingly, her readings in general stay true to the score and intent of the composer and are a good reference point with minimal "outside influences."
Her style is well suited to Ravel's often delicate, imagery-rich music with her lovely phrasing, feathery touch, and ability to achieve the beautiful tonal colorations so characteristic of French music of this period. As Ravel once said about French music, "it is always meant to be beautiful," and Angela Hewitt sure can create beauty in this music. Her Sonatine, Jeaux D'eau, Ondine and Miroirs all are conveyed with an airy finesse, nuanced lyricism and feminine touch that can make Ravel sound so enchanting. Never a harsh note is heard. Yet, she can create a strong sense of drama and intrigue when needed in works like the early Serenade Grotesque or the highly intelligent Valses Nobles. She excels in drawing out the poinant lyricism of Ravel's more introspective works like the Pavane or Menuet d'Haydn. This is a very fresh, inspiring set that critics have taken note. This 2001 set received very high marks from both Gramophone and Penguin who herald Hewitt as having achieved status among the great pianists capable of revealing the fullness of Ravel. Pretty good for a so-called "Bach specialist."
As many know, one of Ravel's most significant and famous piano works is 'Gaspard de la nuit' which is something of a top pianist's 'right-of-passage' due to the immense virtuoisity required. One of the most electrifying (live) performances of Gaspard was by Martha Argerich (EMI). Comparing these two pianist's Gaspard reveals their very different understanding of Ravel and shows Miss Hewitt's approach to Ravel more clearly by making the comparison. In the first movement (Ondine), the aquatic neverworld Argerich creates is fascinating, but seems to lose its hold towards the end and becomes more of a wild ride on the rapids due to Argerich's blazing tempos. Contrastingly, Hewitt maintains Ravel's magical imagery to the end through tone and control. Even though she plays the middle movement (le Gibet) quite fast, Martha does create the ominous moods Ravel sought ... but I find Hewitt's slower tempo and colorations better produces the desolate atmosphere of a stillness and death. In the last movement, Argerich's scarbo is indeed fully terrifying with her quicksilver virtuosity. But it seems Argerich's scarbo haughts its victim more through sheer power (created through speed and volume) versus the more subtle and insideous manner that Hewitt creates more through pure tonal coloration and nuances of tempo/dynamic. Both evoke an ominous atmosphere but in a different way. Certainly Hewitt's scarbo is more 'tame' but perhaps more stealthy and cunning than Argerich's scarbo. I think imaginations like these was what Ravel was trying to create in this piece.
The more I listen to Hewitt's works, the more I appreciate this pianists spirit, range of repertoire and ability to create tonal beauty in anything she sets her hands to on the piano. The sound quality is exellent as are the 14 pages of detailed program notes - which include the full text of literary work, "Gaspard de la nuit" - which can help one understand more fully this strange "tone poem" of Ravel. Ravel's piano music was a very pleasing revelation to me this year, and I consider this two-CD set one of the treasures in my collection.