A mixed Mozart birthday bash from Hewitt, Music of the Baroque

Mon Jan 28, 2019 at 11:15 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Angela Hewitt performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 with Music of the Baroque Sunday night in Skokie.

Music of the Baroque and conductor Jane Glover played host to famed Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt Sunday night at the North Shore Cultural Center in Skokie. The concert, MOB’s traditional January all-Mozart program, coincided exactly with the composer’s birthday.

The bill of fare was one often-heard concerto and one under-appreciated work: the Piano Concerto No. 27 and the “Gran Partita” serenade for winds.

Music of the Baroque’s winds only rarely take center stage. On the evidence of Sunday’s performance of the “Gran Partita,” they should do so more often.

Six out of the piece’s seven movements were interpreted splendidly. Glover’s tempo choices were judicious, including little touches she added within movements. MOB’s music director brought suspense to the first movement’s coda and wryly prolonged the upbeats in the the theme of the second minuet.

Although the “Gran Partita” is a fun piece, it is also somewhat repetitive, and Glover and the ensemble did a fine good job of varying and characterizing sections. The clarinets and basset horns rollicked in the syncopations of the first minuet’s first trio, and the basset horns and bassoons played up the gruffness of the Romanze’s bustling minor-key section. All of these movements were anchored by supple solo work from principal clarinet Steve Cohen and principal oboe Anne Bach.

Yet considering Glover’s Mozart bona fides, the Adagio—the work’s most famous movement—proved strangely disappointing. A pulsing accompaniment runs throughout the whole movement. Marked piano, it is intended to be a gentle backdrop to the tender lines that float above it. But Glover and her ensemble played it at full blast, spoiling its delicacy. 

The second half belonged to the evening’s soloist Angela Hewitt. She is rightly regarded as one of the two or three greatest living interpreters of Bach, and is also a specialist in 19th and 20th-century French music. To both repertoires, she brings a huge range of expression and imagination.

Yet in the Mozart concerto, this strength was only fitfully on display, making for a performance that was at times ravishing and at others quite frustrating.

In the many dialogues between the piano and the Music of the Baroque’s woodwinds, Hewitt was a solicitous duet partner. She took full advantage of the recurring themes of the second and third movements. Each time they returned, she varied them slightly, with a little hesitation, accent or change of tone right where you least expected it. The same went for the cadenzas, which were a feast of variation.

How dismaying then that her passagework throughout the first and third movements was so workaday Sunday night. In Mozart’s piano concertos, the outer movements are packed with scalar filigree. The one rule of playing them well is not to let them sound like scales. This is exactly where a master of articulation like Hewitt should have shined, but instead it was where she most disappointed. One had to wait patiently for her bland passagework to end, so she could go back to playfully shaping the melodies.

As an encore, she gave the audience what it was surely hoping for: some Bach, specifically Mary Howe’s arrangement of “Sheep May Safely Graze,” in a mesmerizing performance. The subtle and tasteful changes in tempo, the intelligent balance between lines, the meticulous attention to phrasing—everything that Hewitt is celebrated for was on display. If only there had been more of this in the Mozart concerto.

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