“Who’s that kook?” the young girl asked her parents whenever she saw Glenn Gould performing on television. Over two decades after Gould’s death, that girl — pianist Angela Hewitt — has become Gould’s unwitting heir as a leading interpreter of Bach with a cult-like following. Yet the fluidity of her performance style could not be more different from the approach of her fellow Canadian.
Earlier this year, Ms. Hewitt completed the recording of all of Bach’s major keyboard works, playing them by memory for the prestigious Hyperion label. The epic endeavor took her 11 years and resulted in 18 CDs, which the Sunday Times of London deemed “one of the record glories of our age.” Ms. Hewitt has also helped revive the legacy of another Baroque composer, Francois Couperin, while winning further acclaim for her performances of Chopin, Messiaen and Ravel. Her appearances in Britain, where she maintains a home, are mobbed, and she is rapidly gaining devotees in the U.S. Ms. Hewitt performs with the San Francisco Symphony May 4 to 7 and in a solo recital at Baltimore’s Shriver Hall on May 14.
In his 2005 novel “Saturday,” British author Ian McEwan had the brain surgeon protagonist play Ms. Hewitt’s “Goldberg Variations” in the operating room. “He has four recordings here,” Mr. McEwan wrote, “and selects not the showy unorthodoxies of Glenn Gould, but Angela Hewitt’s wise and silky playing.” Ms. Hewitt, 47, wearies of the inevitable comparisons. “He was more a presence than an influence,” she said in a recent interview in which she recalled tuning in to Gould’s broadcast appearances and listening to his recordings as a child growing up in Ottawa. “Even from an early age, I realized that he was somebody unique. It was a level to aspire to, but the differences were there from the beginning.”
Since Bach’s scores contain few explicit directives from the composer aside from the notes, Gould felt free to play the music his own way. His highly idiosyncratic style, which infuriated some listeners and thrilled countless others, involved extremes of tempo and articulation, often accompanied by the sound of Gould’s own humming. Ms. Hewitt’s playing is far less affected, displaying superhuman precision while still infusing the music with spirit and charm.
Whereas Gould was notorious for his obsessive quirks and extreme phobias — shunning contact with his fans to the extent of eventually halting all public performances 18 years before he died in 1982 — Ms. Hewitt relishes engaging listeners with her personal warmth and infectious enthusiasm. As did Gould, Ms. Hewitt generally writes her own program notes for her concerts as well as the notes accompanying her recordings, earning praise for the unpretentious lucidity of her comments. She also reviews books for The Times Literary Supplement and regularly posts personal reports and snapshots relating to her recitals and travels on her Web site, www.angelahewitt.com. While on stage, she often breaks with traditional concert ritual to speak directly to the audience about the works she performs.
“I find that I usually play better knowing that the audience has something already to latch onto and knows what to look for,” she says. “It usually helps to relax the audience and to relax me, whereas some artists can’t possibly talk before a performance. There are a lot of artists who as soon as they walk on stage, they look as if they have a disdain for the public, and couldn’t care less if they were there or not. That I can’t bear. I think it’s very important to respect your audience and to be open to them.”
A child prodigy who began playing the piano at age three, Ms. Hewitt had her first recital at age nine at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, where she subsequently studied. Her parents — her father was organist at Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral — gave her an early sense of the significance of dance in Bach’s music, much of it derived from courtly dance movements. Ms. Hewitt herself studied classical ballet for 20 years, and dance imbues her performances from start to finish. “A lot of pianists play from the elbows down, which I really don’t like,” she says, “and I think it ends up sounding like that. If you’re involved in the music you’re feeling it from the very core of your being.” From the moment Ms. Hewitt appears on stage, dressed with dramatic flair and her chestnut tresses piled high, she exudes grace and poise as she glides toward the instrument that dominates her life.
Once the music begins, her bare arms float over the keyboard, and swooning gestures periodically punctuate the notes. At Lincoln Center this February she played Ravel in a trio for piano, violin and cello, at times leaning over the keyboard during ominous passages as if grasping a steering wheel and peering through the windshield to navigate through fog. Later, concluding Cesar Franck’s exuberant Quintet in F Minor, she thrust up her arm to strike the pose of Lady Liberty. “I’m thinking of the drama of what the music provokes in me,” she said afterward. “It also helps to get the message across. I always feel you have to feel something 10 times in order to get it across to the audience.”
Ms. Hewitt is hardly alone in defying convention by playing Bach and Couperin on the piano instead of the harpsichord for which they composed. But her choice of the brand of piano on which she performs has been iconoclastic as well. She prefers the Fazioli grand to the Steinways that are ubiquitous on the concert stage. Her vociferous lauding of Fazioli, an upstart Italian piano firm founded in 1979, has earned her a sharp rebuke from Steinway & Sons, which dropped Ms. Hewitt from its heralded list of Steinway Artists to whom the New York and Hamburg maker provides special services in exchange for an exclusive endorsement.
“The New York Steinway will, at best, be a powerful if rather strident (and in my opinion, clumsy) piano,” she wrote in The Times Literary Supplement last fall when reviewing a new guide to the instrument and its history. She finds a more suitable tone in Fazioli’s pianos, and argues that Fazioli’s far smaller scale of production results in better-quality instruments overall.
Such candor aside, burning bridges is not her style, and she frequently gives master classes for young musicians and collaborates with them outside of her whirlwind performance schedule. This July, Ms. Hewitt is organizing her own second annual chamber music festival on Italy’s Lake Trasimeno, near Perugia, where she has a vacation home. The weeklong festival is held in a 15th-century castle where Ms. Hewitt plays in all the concerts with artists of her choosing. This year’s line-up includes the Jerusalem Quartet, the Pavel Haas Quartet, pianist Akiko Ebi and soprano Lydia Teuscher.
To mark her 50th birthday in little more than two years’ time, Ms. Hewitt is commissioning contemporary composers like Dominic Muldowney and Yehudi Wyner to write new Bach transcriptions or compositions directly inspired by Bach’s music. “More and more I like to create my own work or do special things,” she says, rather than “just going around from city to city, especially playing with an orchestra and a different conductor every time. Recitals are great, and I probably give more recitals than most artists, but it’s nice to have things that you create by yourself that are a little bit more meaningful.”
Ms. Hewitt is intent on attracting new audiences not with hip hype or cheesy sex appeal, but through a fresh interpretation of the music itself, her commanding physical presence, and her passionate and articulate use of the written and spoken word.