Angela Hewitt needs her audience. While she may be the inheritor of Glenn Gould’s status as Canada’s preeminent classical musician, she declares herself his opposite: “It would be sad,” Hewitt says, “to give all these concerts and not enjoy the interaction with people.” Her approach to her audience—personal and generous, and giving with her time—is reflected in her playing. Though her repertoire is broad, she is known for her deep dives into the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Scarlatti, and Schumann.
She is a workhorse, playing dozens of shows a year, while operating the administrative strings behind her concerts, festivals, and records. “All the damn computer stuff can take it out of you… the hours I spend at the piano are focused, but they’re much more relaxing than at the damn computer.”
Angela Hewitt was born in 1958 in Ottawa into a musical family. Her father was a church organist and choirmaster, and her mother, a piano teacher, gave Hewitt her first lessons at age three. Her cycle of Bach’s complete keyboard works—370 pieces recorded over 20 years, from 1994 to 2014—was met with acclaim. Hewitt’s musical intuition heightens Bach’s to the point where the two no longer seem separated by 300 years; her “Well-Tempered Clavier” ticks along as if the master was there beside her, nodding benchside while his star pupil plays. In 2016, Hewitt embarked on a “Bach Odyssey,” performing the complete keyboard works over 12 recitals across the globe.
Then she began on Beethoven, recording his 32 Piano Sonatas in nine volumes. More recently, she has embarked on Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, the first record of which was released in November 2022. Under her light touch, overly symmetrical at times, is a technicolor of sound. Hewitt draws out Mozart’s wise gaiety, playing with a levity that underscores Mozart’s youth at the time of their composition.
A 2001 visit to Umbria, Italy began a new chapter for Hewitt. In 2005, she founded the annual Trasimeno Music Festival, drawing listeners to the village of Magione and the shores of Lake Trasimeno. The weeklong festival sees Hewitt as a recitalist, chamber musician, song accompanist, and conductor, playing alongside both established and young artists of her choosing. The 18th iteration of the festival begins on June 29, 2023.
Hewitt was at her home in London when we spoke, having recently performed at Wigmore Hall (which she has called her “home stage”), and in Bad Elster, Germany. The next day, she was giving a concert in Rhosygilwen, Wales.
“I’m in a total panic,” she said. “Because I’ve got so much to do. I’m here for two days, then I go away, then I’m here for three days, then I go away for six weeks, then I come back for two days.” I said I’d keep my questions brief.
VAN: What is your earliest memory?
Angela Hewitt: I remember when I was a kid, I used to have croup a lot. When I was very young, my parents would put me in the kitchen at night on a cot with all the pots boiling to get steam. That’s an old remedy. I remember having my tonsils out at age four; I remember the medicine they gave me at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. And I remember my first piano books, by Boris Berlin, who taught at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. It’s cheating a little bit because I have a tape of me playing those pieces at age four, and I’ve listened to that tape often, so they seem like memories.
Do you return to recordings of yourself often?
I don’t have the time. But that one is precious to have. Although, during lockdown, I listened to a lot of my old CDs—and [François] Couperin, because I couldn’t listen to any new music, and it was hard to listen to anything trivial. Couperin seemed to fit the bill, so I listened to my three Couperin records, many pieces of which I didn’t remember at all.
You recently wrote about memory, about the difficulty of memorizing music, and the course that memory takes over time. It seems that the ear is the organ of memory and recollection.
Most definitely. You see that with Alzheimer’s patients. I remember visiting my father in the nursing home where he was in the final years of his life. I went up on Easter Sunday and started playing all the hymns—not like my father did, he was wonderful at that—but I started playing them, and this man who hadn’t spoken for several years started singing one of them with all the words. His family was in tears. Our musical memories from when we were young are the ones that probably last the most.
At your most recent concert in Bad Elster, Germany, you played two Sonatas each by Mozart (Sonata in D major, KV 576 & Sonata in C minor, KV 457) and Beethoven (Sonata in D major, op. 10 no. 3 & Sonata in C minor, op. 111). What memories did those pieces conjure up?
Both the Mozart D major and the Beethoven in D major, I learned at 17. Those are pieces that really stick. [I have] many memories of things my teacher had written in the score, which are still very valid for me.
The Mozart C minor I learned in Paris, in my early 20s. The last Beethoven [Sonata in C minor, op. 111], I learned just four years ago at 60—a different process of learning. I’m happy I left it until then, in a way, because it’s such a sublime and mature work, and I didn’t learn it with any bad habits. Not that I have all that many bad habits, but still, I’m just very happy that I learned it at that stage of my life.
It must be different learning a piece of music for the first time now.
It is. Once you get past learning it, it’s great because I know what to do; I have such experience—I just learned, for instance, one of Bach’s three keyboard concertos, the D minor BWV 1063. I didn’t think I had any Bach left to learn, but I hadn’t done those before. It’s a tricky piece; I had to work a lot on it. He must have written that first piano part for himself, and the other two for his kids!
I know what to do with Bach. I see the clues in the score although nothing is written there. I see the phrasing, the articulation, the tempi: all the things that I’ve been concerned with all my life I can apply to this piece and get what I think is a good result.
Has your relationship with Bach changed over time?
I prefer the word developed rather than changed—developed and deepened. I was lucky to have musical parents and excellent teachers who always, first of all, emphasized the importance of learning Bach, and also taught it to me with the right articulation, fingering, and style. I was very lucky with that. Church music is the tradition I came out of. That’s definitely the way to go. You don’t learn to play your Rachmaninoff and Liszt first, and then go back to Bach.
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Your father was a church organist and music director. How did that religious background shape your musical voice?
When you play Bach, if you don’t have that upbringing in church music and singing in a choir, the purity of expression isn’t there. It gives a sense of purpose behind the music that one might not otherwise have. You don’t play Bach in a trivial way. It’s not expressive in a nyah-nyah way. It is pure sound, pure expression.
Bach never wrote a note, sacred or secular, that wasn’t to the glory of God. People aren’t religious in that way anymore. I still think that you can properly perform Bach without being a believer, but you have to have a sense that for Bach that was the case.
The joy present in his dance music, the minuets, and bourrées and gavottes—dance was his expression of joy in eternal life. The strength of purpose has to be there; the fact that he looked forward to eternal life.
How important is the context in which a piece of music is written to your interpretation?
Oh very, absolutely, totally. You have to know why it was written and what the composer was going through at the time. You don’t play Beethoven’s last piano sonata [Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op. 111] without thinking about his deafness, that he never heard a note of the thing. The first movement is his anger at the world. The second movement is a song of gratitude and thankfulness for life—that’s what makes it so moving. I think you have to understand all that to play it well.
I’m quite meticulous in my preparation. Also, having a grounding in Bach really helps you with composers like Mozart and Beethoven. You’re going in the right direction. A lot of people go back the other way, which I think is the wrong way to go. With the counterpoint, and with the emphasis on the harmonies, the color, the timing, the expression, the pauses…
Is there a chronological way to learn music?
It’s not that you have to learn chronologically, but it’s very important to get a grounding in Bach and classical music before you get to the romantics. You must learn to play your instrument in a clean and proper way. When kids who are ten or 11 start trying to play Chopin, and they’re twisting their hands because they’re not that big, all [they] do is learn bad habits.
This year is the 18th iteration of the Trasimeno Music Festival.
Yes, [I’m] in a bit of a panic. Not just with the piano, but all the admin, bookings, arrangements. There are very few of us who work on the admin side, and I’m one of them.
Through the festival, you’ve created a strong connection with film, theater, poetry, and literature. This year Margaret Atwood is speaking, and there is an evening of poetry and music on the theme of love. What drew you to make it such a collaboration with other art forms?
Because those are my interests as well. What I like about the festival is doing programs I don’t get to do anywhere else. I met Margaret Atwood in Canada last year, and she said it would be nice. These are people I admire and want to share with others. It’s very personal in that regard. It’s more like a private party I throw every year for my friends and fans I’ve collected on my tours around the world.
I’m very proud of that audience because they come—yes, of course, they come because it’s me, that’s for sure—but, also, they come to really listen to the music.
You’re in the process of your Mozart cycle, recording his complete Piano Sonatas. What drew you to record them now?
It’s repertoire that suits me, I’ve played it all my life. And it was time to do it. A lot of people disparage Mozart’s sonatas, saying they’re not as interesting as his concertos. His concertos are sublime, but the sonatas are wonderful pieces, even the early ones. There’s a lot there that’s fascinating, but you need time to get into them, time to shape them. A lot of people don’t want to do that.
Do any musical questions remain unanswered for you?
Yeah—what do people see in Rachmaninoff? [Laughs.] So many notes and he always ends with “dum-ba-da-dum.”
I don’t know… every piece has its questions, so I’m never bored. At this point in my life, I just want to share as much music as possible with as many people as possible, before it’s too late. If my life ended tomorrow, or if I couldn’t play as of tomorrow, I can be happy with what I’ve done. The complete Bach, the complete Beethoven—the Beethoven almost more than the Bach, because it wasn’t expected of me, and I learned a lot doing it. I’ve done so much, and been all over the world. OK, they still don’t invite me to Salzburg, or to the Boston Symphony, but that’s to do with how the music world is. I’m very happy, and what comes now is a bonus. It’s all worth it when I have people saying how much a performance has moved them. To make a difference in people’s lives is a pleasure. We all need that—something to get us through. ¶
Update, 6/9/2023: A previous version of this article misidentified the hospital in which Hewitt’s tonsils were removed. It is Ottawa Civic, not Élisabeth Bruyère. VAN regrets the error.
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