2004-10-13 / The Times, London / John Allison
The Cambridge-based Britten Sinfonia is one of this country´s most adventurous orchestral ensembles, so what was it doing launching ist first season on the South Bank with a concert of Bach, Haydn and Mozart? With the programme dominated by two Bach keyboard concertos given from the piano there was something, if not radical at least novel, about these performances. Even in this postmodern age, period musicians tend to rule when it comes to Bach.
But then the Britten Sinfonia´s raison d´être for this project was the collaboration with Angela Hewitt, one of the most outstanding Bach interpreters, who has made a name because of her preference for the piano over the harpsichord.
Bach´s keyboard output seldom sounds more sublimely musical than when in Hewitt´s hands. Incapable of producing an ugly tone, she brought balm and poise to Bach´s lines.
It´s not that she shows any disregard for modern period practice. Quite the opposite, for there is nothing remotely old-fashioned about her style. But she does achieve levels of expressivity that other musicians miss. Especially in the slow movement of the Keyboard Concerto No 7 in G minor, the way in which the sustained writing points towards Beethoven seemed entirely to justify the richer possibilities of the piano.
Much of the Concerto No 2 in E, is less obviously soloistic, and the strings made their mark here. Hewitt kept the interest level up by shading her part – not so much as to give the period hairshirts heart failure but enough to distinguish between strata of musical importance. The melancholy slow movement plumbed deeper levels of feeling, and Hewitt´s easy virtuosity made for exhilarating cascades in the finale.
Hewitt played Mozart´s Piano Concerto No 15 in B flat with just as much style as she had brought to Bach. The Classical repertoire, difficult for any modern orchestra, is not this band´s strongest suit, but once past some slightly unfocused playing there was a chamber-music-like communication here, spiced up by lively winds. Similarly, some soft-edged moments in Haydn´s Symphony No 49 La passione, where the continuo reverted to harpsichord, threatened to make this a workaday performance, but that was to reckon without the sublime oboe interventions in the third movement.