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© Laura Bodo

13-16 January - Britten Sinfonia / Angela Hewitt
Excellent reviews for the orchestra's concerts in Birmingham and the Barbican with pianist Angela Hewitt.

The Times ****
London Evening Standard ****
The Guardian ****
Birmingham Post ****

"A Boy Was Born; and English music was never the same again. Birmingham has taken the name of Benjamin Britten’s choral work as the title of the city’s year-long celebration of the composer’s centenary. And festivities began at the weekend with a concert by the Britten Sinfonia that revealed exactly how auspicious that birth was in Lowestoft in 1913.

This was a concert with no podium, no conductor. And, as Britten’s Simple Symphony, written when he was 21, could just as well be played by a string quartet, it was good to hear it only slightly upscaled by 24 players who listened to each other as acutely as though they had been only four. Led by Thomas Gould in the leader’s chair, the ensemble played the four alliterative movements, from Boisterous Bourée to Frolicsome Finale, with a technical sophistication and disarming simplicity of expression equal to that of the work itself.

The Britten Sinfonia stood up for Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, written only three years later. But this was another country: it was 1937. I’ve never heard a performance that made me quite so aware of Britten’s own acute awareness at the time: that this was to be a time of war, of savagery, of negation. The barbed zig-zagging of the Introduction and Theme moved with palpable apprehension into the Adagio.

And here, as well as in the Funeral March, the anguished presence of Mahler quite eclipsed that of Britten’s teacher, Bridge, and his Idyllson which the work is based. The Wiener Walzer was more bitter than sweet, with growling cellos and basses, and bows brushing strings like the spectres of dry bones.

In between these two works, the celebration of Britten ran headlong into the Birmingham Beethoven Cycle, in which all the composer’s symphonies and piano concertos are being played. The Piano Concerto No 2, by the 25-year-old Beethoven, brought Angela Hewitt to Birmingham shortly before she plays the work at the Barbican today.

Here, the spirit of youth and of Mozart dominated in a performance of delicate phrasing, pearly passagework and finely nuanced dynamics — directed, busily and balletically, from the keyboard by Hewitt herself."
The Times, Hilary Finch ****

"For all its deceptive simplicity, the precise weighting of the opening G major chord in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is enough to have solo pianists mopping their brow. Angela Hewitt, in her first Beethoven performance with the Britten Sinfonia, solved the problem by breaking the chord with an elegant upward arpeggio. It was only the first of many remarkable features in a reading of startling originality.

Hewitt is a hands-on pianist/director, galvanising her forces with vigorous use of both arms and swivelling back to her keyboard with split-second timing to continue an impeccably nuanced conversation. As in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto before the interval, remote key changes were registered with an expectant hiatus and tutti passages enlivened with sparking articulation.

Clearly the Sinfonia’s associate leader, Thomas Gould, was making his own contribution to the shaping of the ensemble. And indeed he assumed responsibility for evocative accounts of Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The latter used double the number of players who would have assembled on the composer’s staircase for that famous premiere, yet still had essential intimacy and wonder.

Recorded live by Radio 3, this exceptional concert is on BBC iPlayer."
London Evening Standard, Barry Millington ****

"When keyboard lions of the past such as Arthur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau were still playing, a weighty evening containing two, or sometimes even three, Beethoven piano concertos was not an uncommon piece of concert programming. But there was nothing retro or heavy aboutAngela Hewitt's bright and propulsive playing of the second and fourth concertos with the Britten Sinfonia, nicely bracketed by Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Sibelius's Scene With Cranes (the bird variety).

Hewitt and the Sinfonia had already played this programme in Norwich and Cambridge this year before reaching London. But the Wagner Idyll still sounded strangely cautious, treated too solemnly for a work that, in Wagnerian terms, is the epitome of charm. However, Hewitt's arrival to play the second concerto bucked things up straight away. Conducting energetically from the keyboard – not good for the spine, one couldn't help thinking – she got the orchestra playing with a crisp incisiveness that ideally complemented her own playing. The Hewitt effect was a lasting one, since the Sibelius cameo, led from the leader's chair by Thomas Gould at the start of the second half of the concert, was altogether more engaging than the Wagner in the first half.

Hewitt brought both concertos to life with her trademark artistic integrity. The phrasing was precise and characterful, the technique sure but never flashy, and throughout the two works there was an unforced and characteristic unity of interpretation and personality. Hewitt's Bach expertise lent a striking contrapuntal tang to the way she began the first movement cadenza in the B flat concerto, while some of her limpid runs were evocative of her recent playing of Debussy. She began the G major concerto with a classical arpeggio flourish that only emphasised the ideal weighting of the famous opening solo chords that followed. As always with Hewitt's playing, there was character and thought, as well as clean execution and excellent balance in every bar. Now for concertos three and five, please."
The Guardian, Martin Kettle ****

"Admiration for the pianist Angela Hewitt just grows and grows, and not only on the audience side of the footlights.

After Sunday’s delightful performance of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto applause was long and enthusiastic not only from us listeners, but also from the members of the Britten Sinfonia, who had responded with such alertness to her direction from the keyboard - good enough for Mozart and Beethoven, good enough for Hewitt, too.

Brisk and no-nonsense, her beat secured strongly-accented phrasing, her hands then moving seamlessly to the extended piano paragraphs, where her warm yet pearly articulation imparted such smiling colour to this lovely work, the Cinderella among Beethoven’s piano concertos.

Hewitt found both its cock-snooking quirkiness and its wonderful serenity, reminding us in this reading how much Beethoven had revered Mozart, and had longed to study under him.

Beethoven is one of the threads in the current Town Hall Symphony Hall season. The other is the Britten centenary, and here we heard lively, communicative accounts of two of that composer’s early string works.

The near-adolescent Simple Symphony was given with an elegance and poise which elevated it into the ranks of similar pieces by Grieg and Tchaikovsky, and the searching Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were delivered with immense character.

This was a programme of early compositions, completed by Prokofiev’s delicious Classical Symphony, both zestful (busy timpanist!) and tender, all these works obviously assiduously rehearsed under concertmaster Thomas Gould (never has the title been so strongly deserved)."
Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley ****

"The quality of the Britten Sinfonia’s playing never disappoints. After its trio of adventurous concerts around its twentieth-birthday towards the end of 2012, the Barbican Centre’s new Associate Ensemble touched home base with this luxurious, more conventional programme, which opened with a particularly luminous performance of Siegfried Idyll, in which elements of scale, balance and restraint came together to compelling effect. With leader Thomas Gould discreetly signalling entries and details of emphasis, the music gathered in impact almost by stealth, the strings’ magically played opening substantiated by the beauty of the woodwinds’ later entry. The clarity of sound was exemplary, with the 30-or-so players responding to each other with the immediacy of a string quartet; the power of Wagner’s familiar themes may have been kept under wraps but they lacked nothing in terms of expectancy.

Among many things Angela Hewitt made clear in her direction and playing of these pair of Beethoven piano concertos was the huge stylistic difference between the two. She played the B flat with a keen realisation of its debt to Mozart and of its not fully formed voice that made you wish again it was officially renumbered No.1 (which it really is), and she brought out with considerable brilliance the tension between Beethoven’s burgeoning style and the one he was paying homage to. Most of the classical piano concertos I’ve seen directed by the soloist – Perahia and, more recently, Andsnes – have been less-so in terms of assertion, a few pertinent and lordly waves of a shapely hand to sculpt a phrase or clinch an entry. Hewitt, though, while not micro-managing, is really active, almost to the point where you wouldn’t be surprised if she used a baton, and, of course, raising the point that it might have been easier with a conductor or to leave it to the abundantly effective Gould, particularly in Concerto No.4.

The Second Concerto showed off Hewitt’s infectiously gracious and rhythmic style and fluidly articulate phrasing, perhaps a bit short on rhetorical brio but with a defiantly big, robust cadenza, the shape of things to come. You’d never describe Hewitt’s approach as boisterous – which the finale is – but her natural vivacity had a sparky rapport with the orchestra, and the music, with fewer gaps for busy direction, bustled energetically to a brilliant conclusion. I liked the way Hewitt arpeggiated the opening chord of the Fourth Concerto, as though to flag up that despite a big orchestral exposition coming up (beautifully played) this is a concerto not a symphony. The first movement had terrific cohesion, and Hewitt opened out with some impeccably managed romantic bravura, and both soloist and orchestra were beyond eloquent in the brief, powerful Andante, its still, small-voice message coming across with impressive strength.

Before the G major Concerto, as if to show off their sure grasp of different styles, the members of Britten Sinfonia played Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes from Kuolema (another piece is the well-known Valse triste), incidental music to a play (which translates as Death) by his brother-in-law. Its hauntingly onomatopoeic crane-calls and attenuated violin and cello solos evoked the northern landscape with impressionistic accuracy."
ClassicalSource, Peter Reed


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