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Album reviews: Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough and Paul Lewis three strong-willed pianists with something to say

By John Terauds on October 16, 2012

Angela Hewitt speaks clearly in a new Debussy album (Giacomo Pompanin/Il Notizario di Cortina photo).

The cascade of fall releases includes three remarkable but completely different albums, each compelling listening, each the work of a powerful artist bending the notes to a very specific purpose — some in service to the composer, others suiting the interpreter.

Debussy (Hyperion)

Ottawa’s most famous musical native daughter is like an iconic non-method actor — Maggie Smith comes to mind — who bends every role to suit her temperament. Each character is essentially a different aspect of her own personality.

Bette Davis is always Bette Davis. But this doesn’t make her performances any less compelling.

Angela Hewitt, long a fan of French music and a stellar interpreter of the piano works of Maurice Ravel and Emmanuel Chabrier, turns her laser-like attention to Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in her latest album for Hyperion.

Like Maggie Smith, Hewitt has been careful to choose this particular musical role astutely, picking pieces that suit her style of playing. This makes for a rewarding listening experience, even though Hewitt lacks the deep, sensual touch that turns Debussy’s compositions into acts of aural seduction.

We get impeccably articulated, limpid, fleet and buttoned-down-elegant readings of 80 minutes’ worth of Debussy favourites: the six pieces from Children’s Corner, the four-piece Suite bergamasque, the three-piece Pour le piano, the two great Arabesques, Danse, Masques, L’isle joyeuse and, as a delicate encore, the waltz known as La plus que lente.

This is Debussy as a sunfish gliding under the surface of a perfectly clear lake. The music is entrancing in neat, brightly coloured assortments.

My only disappointment on this album is L’isle joyeuse, a six-and-a-half minute crescendo to a massive, sensual outburst of bliss. Hewitt’s playing is technically perfect, the crescendo beautifully modulated, but the climax is for and from the mind, not the tinglier bits further below.

For all the details, including Hewitt’s wonderfully comprehensive notes on this album, click here.

Here is Hewitt performing what has to be Debussy’s most-played piece from Suite bergamasque, “Clair de lune,” at Toronto’s Koerner Hall last season, courtesy of CBC Music:

British pianist Stephen Hough has put together an enchanting concert programme of rarities on his French Album.

French Album (Hyperion)

The bulk of the 78-plus minutes of late-19th and early-20th century music on British pianist Stephen Hough’s latest album is a mortal’s equivalent of being gently whisked off to a sort of listener’s Paradise where sorrow and crying are no more, replaced by a gauzy melancholy perfumed with whiffs of sweet bliss.

If this sounds totally over the top, it’s because it is. The craft and thought and preparation Hough brings to the 17 pieces on this album are extraordinary. Every pause, lilt and subtle emphasis is calculated to seduce, and Hough makes it all sound utterly effortless.

The core of the album is a collection of mood sketches, some quiet, some virtuosic, by Gabriel Fauré and Francis Poulenc and others. Hough has written his own entrancing transcription of the song “Crépuscule” (Twilight), by Jules Massenet.

Then there are Hough’s adaptations of two transcriptions of J.S. Bach by French pianist Alfred Cortot to open and, to close, a ridiculously extravagant showpiece by Liszt, inspired by Massenet.

My personal favourite from the album is “Melancolie,” by Poulenc, a five-minute masterpiece of mood and harmonic seduction. Here is French pianist Alexandre Tharaud to give us an impression:

Hough ends the French Album with a prolonged burst of operatic fireworks that suck all the breath out of the lungs, Réminiscences de ‘La juive’: Fantaisie brillante sure des motifs de l’opéra de Halévy, by Franz Liszt. It’s not really a fair representation of the overall feel and mood of the album, but it demonstrates Hough’s incredible command of every black or white key he surveys:

For all the album details, click here.

Paul Lewis brings a live windown on his ambitious Schubert project to Toronto on Thursday afternoon (Jack Liebeck photo).

Schubert (Harmonia Mundi)

British pianist Paul Lewis is obsessive-compulsive. He made his mark on the musical world by conquering and recording everything Beethoven wrote for the piano. Now he’s doing the same thing for Franz Schubert.

Lewis has wonderful technique and a clear sense of where he wants the music to go, which can be a challenge with Schubert. This is music that, in the shorter pieces especially, has clear melodies; the Moments Musicaux and Impromptus collected on this 2-CD set are almost like songs without words. But making them sound good is a long and painstaking process.

The same holds true for the A minor Sonata, D 845, and Wanderer Fantasy, D 760, because they sprawl in a way that frequently defies the narrative skills of the average interpreter.

But Lewis gathers up all the notes, arranges them in neat rows and proceeds to tell a story that has colour, tension and momentum. Before you know it, each sonic tale has come to an end, and you wish for more.

Despite the huge interpretive powers at work here, Lewis’s take on this music is (unlike Hewitt and Hough) totally middle-of-the-road, meaning it’s neither too showy, too indulgent or too distant or clinical. It is Goldilocks’ favourite bowl of classical porridge — warm, slightly sweet, hearty and guaranteed fill any hunger.

Lewis is in Toronto on Thursday afternoon to play Schubert’s three final Sonatas for the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto at Walter Hall. The bad news is, the recital is sold out. The good news is, you can capture some of this fine playing at home.

For more details on the album, you can try wrestling with the Harmonia Mundi website here.

Here is Lewis with the fourth Moment Musical, D 780, and second Impromptu, D 935 (both found on the album) last fall at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam:

John Terauds



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