Hewitt’s Intrepid Art of Fugue

United StatesUnited States J. S. Bach: Angela Hewitt (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, SFJAZZCenter, San Francisco. 9.3.2013 (HS)

J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue

 Angela Hewitt arrived in San Francisco Sunday night to play, all in one sitting, J.S. Bach’s monumental book of contrapuntal masterpieces, The Art of Fugue, at SFJAZZCenter’s Miner Auditorium. The collection of works, published posthumously and titled by his son Carl Philip Emmanuel, included four extraordinary canons in addition to 16 works J.S. himself labeled “contrapunctus,” which must be Latin for “super-fugue.” This is dense, complex, finger-challenging music, all of it in the key of D minor.

 No pianist today has earned quite the adulation for playing Bach than Hewitt does, and it took all of her powers to breathe enough life into this succession of works, all of it in D minor, and reveal their magnificence. I wish I could say I was totally won over by her efforts. Admiration, yes, even awe. The details, the clarity, the way she reached for emotional payoffs, all were impressive. But at roughly an hour and 40 minutes, it’s a long haul without any key changes and each individual piece using the same 4-bar theme (although with an astonishing range of variations in inversions, reversals, note lengths and countermelodies).

 In the end, the most emotionally arresting moment came at the very end, when she abruptly cut off the Contrapunctus XIV where a blind and dying Bach himself ceased dictating it. After an extended moment of silence, she added, as a coda, the choral prelude “Vor deinen Thron treat ich hiermit,” which is thought to have been dictated to C.P. E by his father on his deathbed. The son included it on the final page of the first edition of The Art of Fugue. The chorale, rendered with loving refinement, created more than a few moist eyes in the audience.

 Hewitt also did her best to prep her audience by walking through the individual contrapuncti one by one, playing excerpts and describing how Bach stretched the idea of fugal counterpoint so amazingly in these works. This 10-minute introduction helped give those not familiar with this music a road map to follow, even if musical scholars are still dumbfounded at what Bach accomplished.

 At the piano, Hewitt uses pedal, but sparingly enough to avoid blurring the music. Aside from a startlingly intrusive habit of cutting off final chords by flinging her hands from the keyboard, her playing is mostly free of mannerism. She does use slight ritards and hesitations to emphasize phrasing, but mostly gets into a steady pace and lets the music ride on it. Expressiveness comes first from tempo choices, but also from contrasts between legato and staccato playing, and attention to dynamics.

 The result is a changing kaleidoscope, all of the same color since everything is in D minor, but her patterns of musical expression change with the density and complexity of Bach’s writing. She favored a pattern of starting softly and gradually building up power, perhaps an echo of a typical fugue structure starting with a single voice and adding others one by one to achieve greater depth. The first four fugues follow straightforward contrapuntal writing, the first at a slowish tempo, the next a bit faster but beginning to introduce the occasional ritard. Her playing followed, starting with utter simplicity and unfolding with intensity as the music gained momentum.

 Variety also came from emphasizing dotted-eighth patterns in Contrapunctus VI (subtitled by Bach “in stylo Francese”), playing it as if it were a French overture, and by blazing into Contrapunctus IX at a rapid clip. That was great playing, showing off an astounding ability to bring clarity to complex counterpoint as it whizzed past. Contrapunctus XI got a stately interpretation, and the richness in tone of the second canon was especially mesmerizing.

 The final (unfinished) Contrapunctus XIV, which ultimately weaves together four different themes, was a tour-de-force of sustained intensity, which made the abrupt cutoff at measure 239 all the more affecting.

Harvey Steiman