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Angela Hewitt: 'It's time to do what I want'

Robert Rowat

"I remember being told back in 1990, when I was looking for an agent in London, by somebody very prominent in the music business, that I was at a disadvantage being a woman," recalled Angela Hewitt during a recent phone conversation with CBC Music. "Those were his exact words."

Now, 25 years later, Hewitt is one of the world's most formidable classical pianists and it's awfully tempting to picture the man in question eating a heaping helping of those very words.

"The stereotypes do persist, but we're starting to get away from them," she continued optimistically. "There have been a few female conductor appointments in the last few weeks, which has been great."

To be honest, it's hard to imagine anything getting in the way of Hewitt's juggernaut of recording projects for her label, Hyperion Records. With the complete Bach keyboard works in her rearview mirror (she's the only woman ever to record all of it), Hewitt has also recorded Ravel's complete piano music, is more than two-thirds of the way through Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, and has a complete Mozart concerto plan in place, in addition to a massive discography that spans Rameau and Messiaen, by way of Chabrier, Schumann, Couperin, Fauré and Chopin.

All of this while giving around 100 performances a year and running an annual music festival near Perugia, Italy, her home away from home.

We were compelled to speak to Hewitt upon the release of Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas, her first foray into "the 555" that's already getting glowing reviews. She recorded it about a year ago in Hannover, Germany, while also preparing for her first performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 a couple of months later.

"The hardest thing is planning all this repertoire. People have no idea. The Brahms Concerto I actually played for the first time last year, in April in Tokyo with the Japan Philharmonic. That had been a dream since I was 15 years old [but] nobody ever wanted a woman to play Brahms. Finally Japan took it, and I simply worked on it at every possible moment, even travelling."

Angela Hewitt's ultimate piano playlist

When we spoke with Hewitt in February, she had just flown from Ankara to Calgary where she was slated to give two performances of Schumann's Piano Concerto with the Calgary Philharmonic. Her luggage had been delayed, but there was no time to waste fretting over it. "I've had a keyboard delivered here to my hotel room, since I'm here for six days, and don't want to depend on finding a piano over at [Jack Singer Concert] Hall because that's not always possible and I have Beethoven's Tempest Sonata to learn in as fast a time as possible, like a week if I can [laughs], so it's hugely challenging to plan all that."

Does it ever overwhelm her? "Some of it works out and some of it, well, you kick yourself when the time comes and say, 'Good heavens!' It's one of my main concerns in life."

At 57, and despite the demands of her schedule, Hewitt acknowledges she has reached a pretty sweet point in her career. "With orchestras, they will sometimes say, 'Oh, we want that [concerto],' and it may not really be what you want to play, but I'm trying to phase that out. I did a lot of that when I was young, and it can be a good thing because it makes you learn things that otherwise you wouldn't do, and you can decide later on if it's something you want to keep in your repertoire.

"But at this point in my life, I'm doing things like the Scarlatti project, like finishing the Beethoven sonatas, adding a few more concertos that I've always wanted to do before it's too late, so [now] I'm really concentrating on what I want to do."

'What do you do with a Canadian?'

One of the things Hewitt wants to do is maintain a regular presence in her native Canada, despite being based in London, England. "I had such a wonderful upbringing here, and as you can hear, I haven't really adopted a British accent although I have lived there for 30 years now." In addition to her flat in London and her villa in Umbria, she has an apartment in Ottawa that serves as a base for her performances here.

A glance at her concert schedule shows her determination to concertize in Canada, and not only in the big cities. "I go into some of the smaller places. I don't want to forget my friends and fans here. It's important to me." Her efforts have not gone unnoticed: Hewitt was promoted to companion of the Order of Canada in December.

And being Canadian has some surprising advantages for classical musicians. "I suppose I like the fact that as a Canadian, they can't attach you to a school of piano playing. The most they can attach me to is Glenn Gould [laughs]. If you're French then they label you a French pianist; if you're Russian, you're Russian; if you're German, you're German; even if you're American, you're American. But a Canadian? What do you do with a Canadian? So it gives you freedom, I think, which I'm happy to have."

Back in London, the literary elite has welcomed Hewitt into its fold. She counts among her friends Man Booker Prize-winning authors Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, both of whom she has been performing with in recent months.

"With Julian, he reads excerpts from his own work and poetry and prose by others, and then it can be me, or me and a group of musicians, playing works that somehow fit this poetry, illuminate something in the text. For example, the beautiful poem about Clara Schumann and Brahms called Romantics by Lisel Mueller. That's a wonderful program, and I play Brahms' Intermezzo, which she mentions in the poem."

With McEwan, Hewitt has been performing all the music mentioned in his latest novel, The Children Act, whose main character, Fiona Maye, is a high court judge with serious piano chops. McEwan consulted Hewitt while writing the novel.

"You might have noticed the pianist was playing a Fazioli," she reflected, laughing. "Of course, Ian has heard me play a Fazioli many, many times. You might also notice that ... at a concert, there was some discussion about whether she should play in high heels or bare feet. Ian asked me that question while he was writing the book. I said, 'High heels, of course, Ian! [laughs] You get much more leverage.' And in fact when we do the evening about The Children Act, he reads out his email to me and my answer to him, and it's really quite amusing."

In an email to CBC Music, McEwan called Hewitt the world's great interpreter of Bach. "Wise and silky in her touch," he continued, "she can simultaneously separate out the contrapuntal voices and let them sing while braiding them into their transcendent unity." No surprise, then, that Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon protagonist of McEwan's 2005 novel Saturday, plays Hewitt's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the operating room.

'Read a book!'

Hewitt makes time for reading, not just as an escape from her busy life, but also to add a dimension to her artistry.

"A very good book can illuminate something about life for you and that helps you with figuring out your own life — relationships and whatever — so I think it's very important to read about other people's feelings. And the same with watching actors on television, too, or in the theatre; how they illuminate a text. In fact, I think what a performer does with music is very closely related to what an actor does with words."

Taking a breather with a good book is also something Hewitt recommends for today's aspiring young pianists, who she feels are under a lot of pressure. "I don't know if it was the same in my day. I think there's more pressure now. And the kids, unless they're playing the complete Chopin Etudes at the age of 12 or 13, they think they're not successful, and that's completely wrong. It's stupid."

She continued: "One kid at a school the other day — he must have been something like 15 years old — said, 'You know, after four hours a day at the piano, I find I'm not really enjoying it and I'm not really thinking.' And I said, 'For heaven's sake, four hours is tons! Go out, take a walk, speak to a friend, read a book, do something else! Don't go past that moment where you're not enjoying it.' Because I think that's just ridiculous."

Hewitt's schedule doesn't afford her the time to teach privately, but she has done many public masterclasses. This one from 2014 is worth watching:

Hewitt's advice for today's young pianists? Take the time to learn your music properly.

"I can see in masterclasses, when I ask kids, 'Please start here,' and they simply can't do it, and that's usually because they have no idea what the fingering is, it's badly learned.

"Fingering is not just fingering," she explained. "It's also closely related to articulation and phrasing and voicing, so it's all part of figuring out the music." Being rigorous about memorizing exact fingering, and marking it in your score, is key. "I think it's so useful. First of all, you're not wasting time. You know, if you go back to it the next day, having just learned something, it's there for you; you don't have to think about it again. It's totally related to memorization."

'My number 1 priority'

For Hewitt, there's no slacking off. "I practise just as much now as I did when I was a student, it's true. And you can tell with pianists, even some famous ones, who don't practise as much anymore. It's still my number-one priority every day."

The benefits are undeniable. "My technique is probably as good now as it's ever going to get; I even think it has improved in the last few years," she reflects. Her solid technique, combined with decades of experience, enables her to play so much repertoire at such a high level.

"You have a certain mastery of the keyboard and your musical intelligence has been developed so you know what to do; you can immediately go to the heart of a piece. And when you already have done 22 of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, OK, each one is new but you have a good basis to start from. When I approached The Art of Fugue in 2012, I had already done the complete keyboard works of Bach, so it was wonderful to start with all of that behind me."

In truth, Bach will never be a thing of Hewitt's past, such is the constant demand for her performances of his music. "It's great music and I'll always be playing it. It's music I still hope to be playing when I'm 90, whereas I might not be playing the Liszt Sonata at 90."

She recently announced that she will perform the complete works of Bach again over the next four years.

"When I first heard that the director of Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly, wanted to do this project, I thought, 'Oh no, I won't get anything else done.' But then I agreed because it's a wonderful thing to do. And I'll be doing it in New York at the 92nd Street Y. I won't promise to be doing it all from memory again. Of course, that would be wonderful, but I've done that, and it just takes huge amounts of time that these days I don't have."

If it stresses you out just thinking about the quantity of work involved in all this, you're not alone. "My friends worry about me, all this travelling, doing too much. But what else am I going to do? Sit at home and twiddle my thumbs and mope?"

"I hope to accomplish an awful lot in the time that's left to me, but I suppose I think to myself, 'I've already done a lot, so from now on, it's time to do what I want, finish off what I want to do.' So many people get to mid-life and think, 'Oh my God, what have I done with my life?' But I haven't wasted my 57 years and I think it's nice to be able to say that. If the world were to end tomorrow, I would be happy with what I've done, let's put it that way."

Angela Hewitt plays concertos by J.S. Bach with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on April 13, 14, 15 and 16. Her annual Trasimeno Music Festival takes place from June 30 to July 6.