BBC Proms reviews

PCM 8 & Prom 68: Angela Hewitt – Bach and Scarlatti / VPO/Barenboim – Bartók, Ligeti, Enescu and Kodály @ Cadogan Hall/Royal Albert Hall, London

3-4 September 2007

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

Angela Hewitt will dedicate her forthcoming year to performing Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in major cities around the world. The Bach World Tour will visit over 40 major cities in 25 countries over six continents, a journey staggering in its ambition. Meanwhile, Hewitt’s smaller-scale recital at the Cadogan Hall on Monday lunchtime was a fitting end to this year’s Proms Chamber Music season.

Encasing two pithy sonatas by Scarlatti were Bach’s First and Fourth Partitas. The former was marred by an occasionally too-malleable view of tempo, and various disconcerting stumblings over the beat followed. These are dances, and though it may be manipulated, a clear rhythm is vital.

But the Fourth was majestically played: the Sarabande was a model of evocative playing (the rising scalic figure in bar two seemed to drift into nothingness, and Hewitt allowed the tension to subtly rise during the following melodic elaboration before releasing us, relieved, into the repeat); the virtuosic Gigue moved thrillingly from the especially transparent fugal entries to the white-hot, angrily driven virtuosity of the development section. However, though Hewitt’s stately poise at the piano matched her refined, thoughtful touch of the instrument, technically, she never seemed quite at her elegant best.

The following day, in the pre-concert discussion forum, Nicholas Kenyon noted the scope, range and ambition of the 2007 Proms. There was certainly ambition in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra‘s programme on Tuesday: perhaps it was the unusual combination of Bartók, Kodály, Ligeti and Enescu that left so many Stalls seats empty. The cleanliness of the orchestra’s playing will always divide opinions anyway, but here it reaped its own great rewards.

What the opener, Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, lost in febrile intensity, it gained in attention to colour and shape. Daniel Barenboim conducted in wide, three-dimensional blocks of sound: the individual lines of the Andante fugue could be lost, but the textural gradations of the movement came to the fore. And likewise with the mysterious, spindly melodic fragments of the Adagio.

In the concert’s second half, Ligeti’s Atmosphéres inhabited a similarly expansive sound world, yet one harsher and even more elusive. The double basses found a new graininess of sound, the brass were edgy and crackling and the penetrating piccolo shriek at the work’s centre truly horrified. One could not help but be drawn in by Barenboim’s expansive, mesmeric conducting. The remaining programmed works and encores were technically efficient and often characterful (the superb woodwind especially), though at times, some fizz seemed to be missing from the more ebullient rhythms. Commitment to the moment – something the Simón Bolvar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela so sublimely demonstrated last month – seemed oddly lacking at times, for all the sonic splendour that was on show.

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