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Rameau: Keyboard Works

Suites in E, G minor and A minor

Angela Hewitt (piano)


Hyperion CDA67597


Angela Hewitt needs no introduction in this repertoire; having finished her complete Bach on modern piano, she has moved on to Couperin..….. and Rameau.


In Bach, Hewitt's eminent reputation rests on an interpretative conservatism. She has a measured restraint that allows the different parts of the music to speak, without the intrusion of the characteristics of the modern piano. Fans will say this is the ideal balance between authenticity and modernity, taking advantage of the piano's colouristic possibilities to clarify detail and contrapuntal texture, without disturbing the poised stylisation of the eighteenth century. To doubters, Hewitt does not have the pianistic, technical stature of a Richter or a Gould, nor the interpretative depth of an Edwin Fischer or a Kovacevich.


In Rameau, Hewitt is on less contested ground; most will be glad simply to have the chance to hear these pieces. Even more than Couperin, however, Rameau brings specific interpretative issues of transfer to the piano; how dramatic should it be, and how prominent the ornaments? Hewitt is well known for scholarly introduction of her music; her booklet notes, however, read as if they betray a less personal commitment to the composer than in the case of Bach. For example, she treats the order of the pieces within each ‘suite' (they are not formally so described by Rameau) as a given, not as something prompted by printers' convenience.


Ultimately, I fail to hear what makes these Rameau interpretations special. The suite in E is restrained throughout; the Tambourin is outright timid in its drumming, the musette well crafted but unexpressive. In the later pieces, whether something obviously lively as La Poule, or a slower piece such as Les Triolets, there could surely be more energy; half the time it would appear Hewitt is going through the motions, safe in the knowledge the pieces are little known. For a very different view, try Frederick Haas on the harpsichord. This is Rameau very much played like Couperin, and very differently from Rameau the stage composer. As a short cut to a detailed comparison piece by piece just listen to Hewitt and Cherkassky in that Gavotte and variations.


To her admirers, who include most critics, Angela Hewitt can do no wrong; she is the ideal interpreter of baroque music, her sense of poise and balance perfect for the repertoire. To her detractors, who include many practising musicians, there is a whiff of ‘Emperor's New Clothes' about her playing, her technical limitations concealed and the beauty of her sound augmented by the flattering Fazioli pianos she always plays. Nothing on this disc will change the mind of anyone who holds either position.


Rameau has a distinguished, but not long, list of advocates on the modern piano. Above all Marcelle Meyer in the fifties (French EMI), and Alexander Tharaud's recent. meticulously researched recording for Harmonia Mundi, but a number of legendary artists (Cziffra, Casadesus, Sokolov) have also cherry-picked pieces notable for their pianistic qualities. The recent Cherkassky BBC Legends disc (BBCL41852), a largely miraculous recital marred only by a sloppy Chopin 2nd scherzo, contains a relaxed, unashamedly emotional and virtuosic account of the absolute jewel in the Rameau repertoire's crown, the ‘Gavotte and 6 Doubles.'


I have seen a review that speaks of Hewitt conveying the sense of tragedy inherent in Rameau, and indeed in the Ancien Regime. Others will find this disc simply too insipid. If you like Hewitt, you'll love this, and if not, not.


Ying Chang

See Hewitt in Couperin [Editor]