Angela Hewitt in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the Twentieth Classical Conversation in my Series, and I’m delighted to welcome celebrated British Canadian concert pianist Angela Hewitt to mark the occasion.

Angela Hewitt is a phenomenal artist who has established herself at the highest level over the last few years not least through her superb, award-winning recordings for Hyperion. Completed in 2005, her eleven-year project to record all the major keyboard works of Bach has been described as “one of the record glories of our age” (The Sunday Times) and has won her a huge following. She has been hailed as “the pre-eminent Bach pianist of our time” (The Guardian) and “nothing less than the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come” (Stereophile). She has a vast repertoire ranging from Couperin to the contemporary. Her discography also includes CDs of Granados, Beethoven, Schumann, Rameau, Chabrier, Olivier Messiaen, the complete solo works of Ravel, the complete Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus, a Handel/Haydn album, and three discs devoted to the music of Couperin. Her recordings of the complete solo keyboard concertos of J.S. Bach with the Australian Chamber Orchestra entered the billboard charts in the U.S.A. only weeks after their release, and were named Record of the Month in Gramophone magazine. A cycle of Mozart Concertos has begun, the first of which features the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova. In 2012 Hyperion will release her recording of solo works of Debussy, as well as the works for piano and orchestra by Robert Schumann in which she is partnered by the Deutsche-Sinfonie-Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu.

Angela has performed throughout North America and Europe as well as in Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Israel, China, Mexico, Turkey and the former Soviet Union. Highlights of recent seasons include her debuts in Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw and with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as a North American tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Her recitals have taken her to the festivals of Edinburgh, Osaka, Prague, Hong Kong, Schleswig-Holstein, Brescia/Bergamo, and Oslo to name but a few. Her frequent Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall recitals in London sell out months in advance.  As a chamber musician she has joined international artists at Lincoln Center in New York and in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  With cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott she recorded the Bach Gamba Sonatas for Orfeo, and the complete works of Beethoven for Hyperion. With flautist Andrea Oliva, she recently recorded the Bach Flute Sonatas for Hyperion.

Angela’s entire 2007-2008 season was devoted to performances of the complete Bach Well-Tempered Clavier in major cities all over the world, including London (Royal Festival Hall), New York (Carnegie Hall), Los Angeles, Berkeley, Portland, Vancouver, Denver, Ottawa, Toronto,  Mexico City, Bogota, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Macao, Sydney, Melbourne, Warsaw, Milan, Lisbon, Venice, Bilbao, Zurich, Stuttgart, Glasgow, Pretoria, and Hong Kong.  A special DVD lecture-recital entitled “Bach Performance on the Piano” was released by Hyperion to co-incide with the tour. Before the end of the tour, she re-recorded the work which was released by Hyperion in 2009 to great critical acclaim from around the world.

In July 2005, Angela launched her own Trasimeno Music Festival in the heart of Umbria near Perugia. Now an annual event, it draws an international audience to the Castle of the Knights of Malta in Magione, on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. Seven concerts in seven days feature Hewitt as a recitalist, chamber musician, song accompanist, and conductor, working with both established and young artists of her choosing.

Born into a musical family (her father was the Cathedral organist in Ottawa, Canada) Angela began her piano studies aged three, performing in public at four and a year later winning her first scholarship. During her formative years, she also studied violin, recorder, and classical ballet. At nine she gave her first recital at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music where she later studied. She then went on to learn with French pianist, Jean-Paul Sévilla, at the University of Ottawa. She won First Prize in Italy’s Viotti Competition (1978) and was a top prizewinner in the International Bach competitions of Leipzig and Washington D.C. as well as the Schumann Competition in Zwickau, the Casadesus Competition in Cleveland and the Dino Ciani Competition at La Scala, Milan. In 1985 she won the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition.

Angela Hewitt was named Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2006.  She was awarded the first ever BBC Radio 3 Listener’s Award (Royal Philharmonic Society Awards) in 2003. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.  She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006. She has lived in London since 1985 but also has homes in Ottawa, Canada and Umbria, Italy.

Angela in action…


The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…..

MELANIE:  Celebrated British-Canadian concert pianist Angela Hewitt gives recitals and concerto performances in major concert halls all around the world. She’s renowned for her interpretation of the works of J.S. Bach and was awarded the OBE in 2006. So, I’m thrilled that she’s joined me here today at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

ANGELA:  Hi Melanie.

MELANIE:  Lovely to meet you.

ANGELA:  It’s nice to be here.

MELANIE:   I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst and whether you come from a musical family?

ANGELA:    Yes, I do come from a very musical family. My father was organist and choirmaster at the Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, Canada. He’d come from England and had gone out to Canada as a young man and so he was a really marvellous musician. And I heard him play from probably before I was born. And my mother was his student but was a pianist in her own right and had a girls’ choir at high school where she taught Music and English. And so music was very much a part of everyday life at home. And I think even before my 3rd birthday, my mother started me at the piano which I took to naturally and by evidently I asked for a lesson every day or twice a day. But I didn’t just do piano. I did violin from age of 6, also recorder very seriously. I did the Classical Ballet. I did Highland Dancing. I sang. So I did really have an all-around artistic education.

MELANIE:   Which teachers were most influential on your development as a pianist?

ANGELA:    Well, besides my parents who taught me up until the age of 5 or 6, I guess I was 6 when I started going to The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. We never lived in Toronto but I would make the trip there, first by train and then by bus and then by plane every 2nd week for lessons. And there I have some very good teachers. Earle Moss when I was very young who’s great with children and a wonderful pianist himself and then Myrtle Guerrero, who had been the wife of Alberto Guerrero, who was the only teacher of Glenn Gould but she wasn’t a pianist herself but had benefited from her husband’s teaching. And then, I decided to stay in Ottawa because a pianist who had come from France, Jean-Paul Sévilla, to teach at the University of Ottawa and I had heard his students and heard what progress they have made and was amazed. And so when I was just 15, I started with Jean Paul at the University of Ottawa, first as a special student and then enrolled in the national music programme in performance and he was fabulous. He had such a wide repertoire he could sit-down play anything; the Goldberg Variations, the Brahms-Handel, the Liszt Sonata, the complete works of Ravel, of Faure and gave us much more than piano teaching. He really taught us all about art and opera and took us to France every summer and had a wonderful joie de vivre and all of his students were friends. And it was a really terrific to have him in Ottawa. And then I went to study in Paris in 1978, he was back in there on Sabbatical that year so I finished up a lot of French music with him. I took some private lessons from Catherine Collard, a wonderful pianist, now dead, but who was a great Schumann player, especially. And Vlado Perlemuter who had studied with Ravel, but I really, by then, wanted to study by myself because Jean Paul had given me such a good beginning and I needed to find my own way. And so that’s what I did.

MELANIE:    So, how did you develop your technique?

ANGELA:    Well, technique, of course when I was young, I did my scales, my arpeggios, my broken chords, my Hanons. I mean, we have to do that for the Conservatory exams. That’s a good thing because I think it’s too often neglected but I always got technique more through the music. First of all, Bach is the best thing for developing your technique, and I always did love Bach, for developing your 4th and 5th fingers, you know. Every finger of every hand has to be strong in Bach. And even playing things like the Liszt Sonata which I did when I was 17, in all the octave passages, okay, you practice them with just the thumb only da … da … da … da …

MELANIE:   Yes.

ANGELA:   You know but still I always practice hard bits musically with the phrasing already in place, never purely mechanically. So the two were always very much linked with me. And I was had a good technique but I really had to build up the strength and my technique. I was never one to rattle off all the Chopin Etudes when I was 13, I still can’t rattle them off, but it doesn’t matter. I could rattle off all the complete Bach.

MELANIE:   That’s right.

ANGELA:   And octaves always suited me more than double thirds, for sure. But I think, it was this thing that I always developed technique through repertoire and not just, you know, thinking notes.

MELANIE:  You won many prizes both national and international, what, impact do you think this had on your career? Do you think it was crucial or not so important?

ANGELA:  It was important and I was one of the pianists of my generation at least of my age and those years who did the most competitions. I started international competitions I guess when I was 17, with the Bach competition in Washington D.C. where the Goldberg Variations was the test piece. It was all done behind a curtain so the judges had no idea who was playing and that gave me my American debut at the Kennedy Centre. Anyway, but I started doing them early on and I looked at them … I was successful in some, I was kicked out in the first round in many others. But I always look at it as a chance to, first of all, prepare repertoire, to perform it and especially to listen to others because I remember my first international competition in Europe was in 1976. I went to the Bach competition in Leipzig. And so I played I think I’ve drawn an early number so, and then I listened to everyone. And it was good because no matter what the result was in the end what the jury thought, I could form my own opinions and hear the Russians, and hear the Germans, and hear the Americans and then every nationality possible. And just sort of feel where I felt I was situated or just feel that yes, maybe I do have a chance at this. So, that was good. And so I tried to look on it positively. But then, when I finally won, I had won several but when it was Bach in competition in Toronto that they held in memory of Glenn Gould, and where Messiaen was on a jury with Yvonne Loriod and Leon Fleisher. That was in 1985. And when I saw the programme I thought that’s really my programme,  a combination of a lot Bach and on choice stuff and Classical sonatas, so when I did win that my first thought was great I don’t have to do anymore. Because that gave me enough of a launch but then, that was it. But it was more necessary perhaps in those days you couldn’t make a career on YouTube in those days.

MELANIE:  Well, that was my next question, do you think it’s still valid, it’s still important for young  pianists to take part in competitions?

ANGELA: Well, I think they can be but I think there’s so many of them now that even winners of big competitions tend to get lost. That’s one problem I think another problem is that too often winners of competitions are taken and pushed beyond all you know, what they should be by agents and record companies in too an early an age. And that I’m very much against. You know, I won my prize when I was 26 I guess but I’d already made my New York debut, my London debut at Wigmore Hall. But I already had a huge repertoire and a lot of concert experience but still it was another … I would say another, what even 10 years after that before I got in my contract with Hyperion and so … and I don’t regret at all those years of still working hard. There is your repertoire and living a life.

MELANIE:  Yes that’s right!

ANGELA:  Other than on the road.

MELANIE:  Yes, very few pianists play Bach convincingly, you’re one of the few, what draws you to this music so much?

ANGELA: Well, I’ve mentioned my background already so having heard all those great organ works, you know, as a child and wonderfully played so that they weren’t boring and they were fascinating. And I heard the structure and love that. I love the strength of the themes and what Bach did to them. You know, I think I always had it in my nature to take something complicated and then unravel it and make it simple, which I think that’s why I enjoyed just now working on the Art of Fugue ,the last sort of big project I’ve been … Bach project that I’ve done and, yeah, there’s for sure, something in my nature that enjoys taking the complicated and making it easy and that should be for Bach because of course there’s nothing written in the score so you have to know the style, you have to see how you can translate that to yourself using a modern instrument. But and also I love the dance aspect of it because of course, most of Bach is dance music whether it has the title of Minuet and Bourrée or a Prelude and Fugue could be dance music. So, a lot of the spirit in it that wonderful joy comes from the dance and that I feel inside me. And then just the great beauty of it. I mean, it’s simply beautiful music no matter on which level you appreciate it. It is, you know, beautiful melodies, and harmonies, and … but yeah, and also because you can keep playing it and never get tired of it in a way that you would in some other pieces.

MELANIE:  You played a lot of French music as well from Couperin, Rameau, right through to Messiaen, so what acttracts you to this country’s great music.

ANGELA:  Yeah. Well, I guess it was beginning my study with Jean Paul there when I was 15 and all the way I’d already played some Ravel and Debussy but he was the one who first gave me Messiaen and Faure and Chabrier, and right in those early years and I just loved it. I think again it was, well I had a wonderful teachers before because, you know, he was really steeped in the tradition and knew how this music should be played and we … you know, when I learned Faure, I didn’t just play the piece that was put in front of me, I listened to all the songs which I loved. I was learning French at the same time so the combination of the language and the music and when you’re playing French music, even when you’re playing music without words, it’s very important. The poetry in Ravel. The colours that one could get at the keyboard, the challenges of playing things like Gaspard de la Nuit. But it was just … the French wit, going to their country, living there because I lived in Paris from the age of 20 for seven years. So, yeah, it was … I don’t know, in Canada of course, we have French and I was taught it at school from an early age but I always did more than I needed to because it fascinated me so much.

MELANIE:   Who other composers do you really love to play?

ANGELA:  Well, I love Schumann, and then Mozart, Beethoven, of course. I’m recording at the moment all Beethoven sonatas and all the Mozart concerti but Schumann is another great love again I think through Jean Paul and Catherine Collard. When you are 15, 16, 17 those are big influences that hit you. But Schumann it was the Sonata in G minor Op. 22, that was my first big solo romantic piece. And Jean-Paul gave it to me and I came back a week later playing with the notes but then he sat down and showed me what could be done with it and I went “Wow!” And I never realized all the passion and everything that could go into an interpretation at the piano and so, I took it away and sort of imitated him a bit and found my own way and then that was it, that really got me going. So, yeah, I love Schumann for the combination of rigor and yet total fantasy, improvisation and quick changes of mood and craziness. Just what one can really give of oneself.

MELANIE:   Yes. Do you have a particular practice regime?

ANGELA:  Nothing set, but I usually start with Bach because I usually have some to play and so it’s good to get going in the morning get the brain alert and the fingers warmed up. The older you get, I think the more you have to sort of, you know, not start with the Liszt Sonata. It’s very important to warm up the muscles, actually, somehow before you begin to play more complicated things. But I work hard at practice now as much as I did when I was kid. There’s no slacking off at all. In fact I work probably much more attentively and carefully now. I work just as much on memory in fact, even more and more consciously, as well because you have to when you’re older and that’s a good thing. I study a lot away from the piano too when I’m in airplanes as if I have a new piece to memorize then I find that’s a very good to do that away from the piano….

MELANIE:  …away from the piano..

ANGELA:  … and just visualizing yourself playing in and memorizing and fingering. But, yeah, I do a lot of slow practice also but again with the phrasing already in there, I’m very careful with my fingering especially in Bach..

MELANIE:  Especially in Bach.

ANGELA:  99% of it is fingering. It’s all linked to articulation, to phrasing, to the clarity between the voices. Yeah. So, I’ve worked very carefully looking at everything in the score, the articulation mark. Because you know, so often, things like that are forgotten and if you all do is listen to 10 great pianists playing  Beethoven sonata then just, you know, sort of imitate them all and that’s probably the worst thing you can do.

MELANIE:   Yes. You set up the Trasimeno Music
festival in Perugia in Italy in 2005. Lots of pianists are setting up their own music festival, what’s the catalyst behind yours?

ANGELA:   Well, I bought this piece of land, rather unexpectedly, in Umbria on Lake Trasimeno. Friends of mine at that time were fixing up a house near there and I thought that it wouldn’t be bad to have a place in a country where I didn’t have neighbours, you know, where I could practice as much as I wanted. And so I looked on the map and found this lake, Trasimeno. I’m a Canadian I need to see water, and never had a cottage as a kid so, and to make a long story short, I found this piece of land for sale and I built a house. And I knew that there was the  Castle of the Knights of Malta, just a few minutes away in Magione and … the following summer after my house was ready, I went and saw … saw the inside of it. I saw this 15th century courtyard with a stunning acoustic. And thought ‘Wow, I have to have a festival here’ and the next summer in 2005, I already did. And so, it’s grown over the years and in 2014, we’re having our 10th festival already. And people come all over the world and I, we present seven concerts in seven days and I play in six of those had people said, “why do you play in so many concerts”

MELANIE:  That’s a lot….

ANGELA:  It is a lot but then, that’s the big pleasure from me. I don’t think I will do all the work for this festival. It’s simply too much all year round. Fund-raising and putting programmes together and, you know, I see every reservation that comes in, I mean, I work so hard at it, but I don’t think I will do that unless then I have the pleasure of playing with people like Anne Sofie Von Otter or, you know, that’s only one name, but all wonderful instrumentalists we’ve had and orchestras and conductors that … Yeah, so when they come rehearse at my house and we perform that’s really the pleasure for me. And also to see all my friends and fans all over the world get together in one place and they form friendships and that’s also wonderful.

MELANIE:   Sounds fun.

ANGELA:  Yeah.

MELANIE:  What exciting plans have you got for the future?

ANGELA:  Well, lots and lots of concert all over the world, that’s for sure. I’m about to go to Australia and Japan for 6 weeks. On the recording front I have a Faure disc just now coming out. I have a fourth album of Beethoven. I’ll be recording a fifth in January. I just recorded the Art of Fugue that will be out and I’ll be doing a video also explaining it, I think. I’m going to start Scarlatti before too long not all of it not all 555 sonatas but some, you know, a good selection and Mozart concerti continue with the third volume, I just recorded it in Ottawa, So, Turangalîla recording in Helsinki in the new hall next January – Messiaen, which is a big thing. So, yeah, lots of things to learn, lots or repertoire that still interests me which is good, lots of concertos that I still want to play,  Brahms Concerto in D minor, and Ravel Left Hand Concerto, which is the only piece of Ravel I’ve never performed. So, always lots to keep me going, which is good.

MELANIE:  Yes. Good. What does playing the piano mean to you?

ANGELA:   Well, it’s my life. It’s what I do to express myself. It’s what I do to … I mean, I’m very lucky in the way that I get to earn my living by doing something that gives me and so many people a lot of pleasure. But, yes, if on a day I don’t play, unless I’m sick or something, I don’t feel quite right you know, you physically get quite restless.

MELANIE:   Yes.

ANGELA:  And … this week I have a few days off but then there’s so much business to do that I am still busy but, yeah, it’s my life and it has been since when I was a tiny child and it will be I hope   always. But, I think, music is the greatest way to communicate with people, to build bridges, to builds friendships, to spread something happy and meaningful.

MELANIE:  Thank you so much for joining me today Angela.

ANGELA:  Thank you, Melanie

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About Melanie Spanswick

Classical pianist and writer. I love to Tweet and Blog and I love to play the piano too.
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One Response to Angela Hewitt in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

  1. Pingback: Beethoven: Complete Works for Solo Piano | FOLLOW-REFERENCE.org

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