Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hewitt plays Beethoven

I recently attended a concert at the Theatre Royal in Norwich of Angela Hewitt (above) accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia, performing not one, but two Beethoven piano concertos.

Established over 20 years ago and based in Cambridge, the Britten Sinfonia are now the foremost chamber orchestra of the East Anglian region. The evening's performance was a first for several reasons. Departing from her usual repertoire of Bach, for which she is justly famed, it was not only the first occasion in which Angela Hewitt performed and conducted a Beethoven concerto, but the programme itself was a first, for myself at least, of hearing two piano concerto's on the same evening. By performing Beethoven's early C major concerto on the same evening as the maturer G major concerto, one could hear the vast development made by Beethoven in his composing of piano concerto's.

Although it opens with a typical short heavyweight balletic flourish, the influence of Mozart's piano concerto's is detectable throughout Beethoven's second concerto. Indeed, Beethoven admired Mozart's D minor concerto (K.466) enough to write a cadenza for it which is still performed today.While Beethoven's second piano concerto (in fact his first due to the timing of its publication) was distinctly imitative of Mozart's piano concerto's in both scope and emotional expressiveness, the fourth, in contrast is a fully-fledged mature work by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Composed in 1805-6 at the same time as Beethoven was also working on the Fifth symphony, the Violin Concerto and the first version of the opera Fidelio, critics have described the Concerto number four in G major opus 58 as one of the most beautiful piano concerto's in the repertoire and as a tone-poem of rare delicacy and feeling. There's an extremely enigmatic theme in   the first movement which is haunting and unforgettable upon hearing. The second movement of the fourth, which Ms. Hewitt in a generous pre-concert talk earlier in the evening described as Beethoven's 'Orpheus' moment, alternates between a harsh, strident opening phrase in the strings and a gentle phrase by the piano. The strings and piano's dialogue, which is likened to Orpheus pleading with the forces of the Underworld for the return of his Eurydice, resolves in a calmed, pacified mood. However, on this particular night of performance it was somewhat marred for those sitting at the rear of the Circle by an elderly women who erroneously imagined Beethoven had scored her voice to utter the words, 'Wonderful thing'  long before the eventual tranquillity of the music had died away.

Speaking of audiences, 99% of which did behave in a manner acceptable to the concert-hall, I could not but notice that although the theatre was almost full, there was hardly  anyone to be seen under the age of forty on the evening. In an age of instant gratification and short attention span, few young people these days seem able to either embark upon training the ear to listen to classical music or have the discipline to sit still and listen for more than a few minutes. This is tragic for several reasons. The music of masters such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is the spiritual inheritance of Western civilization which contains a wealth  of profundity, grief and deep joy. The ability to sit and listen  in order to understand emotions expressed by the great masters bodes ill for present-day society for several reasons, not least in nurturing empathy for other's feelings, as well as appreciating the emotional sensibility of past era's.

There's a certain precision, lightness of touch and expressiveness in Ms. Hewitt's piano-playing which makes hearing her perform a constant delight. Her playing in the lively final movements of both the second and fourth piano concerto in the evening's programme exemplified these qualities. Like her Canadian predecessor the maverick Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt is famed for her interpretative insight of Bach's music on the piano. I remember the revelation of hearing her perform a Bach concerto on her favoured Italian Faziola manufactured piano at the Norwich Festival many years ago. Angela Hewitt has now successfully added further strings to her bow, both in repertoire and interpretative insight, in her conducting the Britten Sinfonia. 

There were two shorter pieces of music in the programme, both of which I was unfamiliar with. Both worked as effective back-drops in mood to the Beethoven piano concerto's. Although the music of Wagner seems to have influenced almost all composers following him including Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Sibelius, try as I might I have never really enjoyed listening to this composer. Wagner's instrumental work Siegfried Idyll however came some way towards redeeming the composer to my ears and there was some fine French horn playing in the short work. Although well-acquainted with large chunks of the repertoire for orchestra, I had not heard the Sibelius Scene with Cranes before either. Scored for strings and two clarinets the interlude was typical Sibelian fare. Elegiac and slightly gloomy in Nordic mood, the two pieces accompanying the Beethoven piano concerto's were well-suited in framing an overall atmosphere to the evening and showcased the Britten Sinfonia's abilities.

One last grievance. Although Norwich prides itself on its cultural treasures, it does not have a designated concert-hall, hence the evening's performance was held at the Theatre Royal. Norwich has an important place in the history of music-making in England, its now annually-held Festival is the oldest surviving music-festival in the country. However, given both the current economic climate and the lack of interest in Classical music by most aged under forty, I cannot see how this lamentable lack of concert-hall facilities can change in the foreseeable future. The Theatre Royal certainly does work as a host for a chamber orchestra the size of the Britten Sinfonia, some thirty-odd players, but not for many more musicians on stage. However on the evening the  music-making of the Britten sinfonia and  the wonderful piano-playing Ms. Hewitt fitted each other like hand in glove.  All in all  a most enjoyable evening of music, an imaginative programme and an opportunity to hear a performer of World-class calibre.

There are numerous video clips of Angela Hewitt playing Bach. This is just one of many to be found on Youtube.


Nick said...

I'm sure every classical music fan who cares about the future of the music dreads the moment when, during a concert, they look around and notice that almost everyone is elderly. I suppose the reasons few people my age are listening to classic music are complicated, and might be related to the cost involved in attending concerts, the lack of exposure to the music, a feeling that they might not be welcome at the concert hall, competing interests and a general shortage of time. But one thing I noticed last year was how many people in their twenties attended the Steve Reich and Philip Glass concerts I went to. Minimalism might not have the depth of baroque and classical music, but the attendance at least showed that younger people do have the ability to sit through a solid hour or two of art music.

Kevin Faulkner said...

Thanks for some very good points Nick ! Far be it for me to come across as a reactionary old fogey ! Personally i feel that here in GB there is a strong association of social privilege with classical music which is much lesser on mainland Europe where many more young people do listen and love classical music. It's also possible that some minimalist music is actually 'deeper' in content than some superficial classical music such as 'showy' Vivaldi concerti for example. Cheers !

Anonymous said...

Music, as every art, is communication. I feel privileged to be able to communicate with such gifted men as Bach and Beethoven.
Most people prefer to text to their girlfriends or to talk about the weather with the secretary. To each his own.