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Half-jokingly, I keep a list of my top-ten lifetime music experiences. Naturally, the list is continually revised. Some concerts will probably never be bumped — Janis Joplin in the spring of 1969; Piedmont bluesman Willie Trice with his National steel guitar laid across his legless lap in UNC’s Gerard Hall — but something’s got to come off to make room for the Angela Hewitt piano recital presented by Duke Performances in Reynolds Theater. She performed her program of Bach and Debussy, so intelligent and well-constructed, with gleaming elegance and delicate emotionality, but there was something more — the joyous magic that occurs between a virtuoso musician and an attentive audience. The room was radiant with all the colors of music-love. This was my first experience of Hewitt live, and maybe she does this each time she performs, but it felt rare and wondrous.
She opened with Bach’s French Suite No. 6 in E, S.817, and from the first bars of the Allemande, her deep, long friendship with the music was clear. She seemed, under the flawless, sprightly playing, to be dancing with the music. Her hands lifted from the keyboard in graceful arabesques. The Suite’s central section (Gavotte, Polonaise, Bourrée) was particularly beautiful. An exciting rendition of the Toccata in D, S.912, followed. The animated conversation between the parts in the recitative section was fantastic.
Then came Debussy’s big Pour le Piano, with its Prelude, Sarabande, and Toccata. I tend to hear Debussy as an evolving landscape of abstract shapes in shifting color, and here the shapes were crisply rendered with their shadows, and the color was of surpassing clarity. Hewitt’s fine Debussy recording was recently released by Hyperion, but even her recorded version is not as brilliant as her recital performance on the 17th.
The concert’s second half was similarly structured, but weighted toward Debussy. It began with Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G, S.816, and Hewitt made it even more delightful than the earlier piece. It is such a pleasure to observe her pleasure in the music, its beauty and intricacy, its emotions. A piano recital in an intimate hall like Reynolds gives the listener rare, sometimes revelatory, contact with the artist, and a recital series like Duke Performances has been presenting since they got their fleet of beautiful Steinways offers the opportunity to compare differing styles of performance. It becomes apparent quickly that the music is best served when the brilliance of youth grows into the luminous wisdom of age, no matter the style. Hewitt, who is in her 50s, is at the peak of her powers, with no need of histrionics or dramatic display. The music has yielded its secrets to her, and she reveals them to our ears, like the Muse Euterpe. The Loure section of Suite No. 5 was especially affecting, though the final Gigue banished everything less important than joy.
From there, Hewitt launched into the demanding Suite Bergamasque, which of course includes the "Clair de lune." That piece of music has been somewhat degraded by excessive poor quality reproduction, but put back in its place as the third of four movements of the Suite, its magic is restored. Hewitt gave a velvet dark and shimmer bright rendition, by far the most beautiful I’d heard. It was very like a grand Edo period screen I once saw, in which a beaten silver stream flows in moonlight through a lacquer landscape. The "Passepied" which follows the "Clair de lune" is so dynamic and brisk that one has no chance to linger in the moonlight with nostalgia and sentiment. Like another great Debussy interpreter, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who played at UNC last fall, Hewitt gives us all the poetry of Debussy, without any of the saccharine overlay he sometimes acquires.
The concert ended with an absolutely splendid version of Debussy’s "L’Isle Joyeuese," with its grand cliffs of sound and green dells and sweet water. Again, Hewitt’s sound-colors were extraordinary, and once again the concert version had that something extra special that makes one go out instead of popping in the CD. I would have been happy to stop there, but the ovations of a very full house for the 5 p.m. concert drew Hewitt back to the keyboard, where she tossed off Ravel’s "Pavane pour une infante défunte" as generous encore. Minutes later, as if she had not just played a feast of music, she was in the lobby, smilingly signing her name with a silver pen.