Although early 20th-century music featured prominently in pianist Angela Hewitt’s Kennedy Center recital Friday night, you could argue that it was actually an all-baroque concert. Hewitt cleverly positioned J.S. Bach’s music beside Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” a suite modeled on the French baroque, and Debussy’s “Pour le Piano,” a nod to 18th-century keyboard styles.
You could also argue it wasn’t a perfect night for Hewitt. Her gleaming Fazioli piano (shipped from New York) wasn’t completely acclimated and required a tuneup during intermission. To these ears, the tone of the instrument in Bach’s French Suites Nos. 5 and 6, where Hewitt judiciously used little pedal, lacked warmth and character, especially in the colorless upper midrange.
A kind of facelessness also characterized some of Hewitt’s playing in the Suites. She’s often praised for her precision, which was fully on display. Everything was elegantly in its place, yet the dance movements, whose individual characters should pop with personality, somehow lacked the flesh and blood of Bach. Still, there were some truly satisfying moments, especially the rambunctious “gigue” that capped the fifth suite.
The Fazioli woke from slumber in Bach’s Toccata in D, a fascinating early work of surprising spontaneity. In it you could hear a foreshadowing of Chopin’s improvisatory wanderings, Beethoven’s violent outbursts and Schubert’s bittersweet austerity.
A very different toccata occupied the final movement of Debussy’s “Pour le Piano.” The same spirit of extemporization prevailed, but with it came Debussy’s prismatic swirl of untethered notes and harmonies, deftly dispatched by Hewitt. Some pianists prefer not to over-perfume Debussy’s early masterwork, given its baroque inspiration. Hewitt played it for all its color and panache.
Ravel’s “Tombeau” also closed with a finger-twisting toccata. With a few exceptions, Hewitt kept the textures light enough to hear endless translucent colors in a suite buoyed by the spirit of baroque keyboard master François Couperin but also embittered with the death of Ravel’s friends in World War I, to whom he dedicated his extraordinary piece.