Angela Hewitt’s Remarkable Traversal of The Art of Fugue

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach. Angela Hewitt (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.5.2014 (CC)

The Art of Fugue, BWV1080
Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit, BWV668


 My colleague Harvey Steiman reported on Angela Hewitt’s Art of Fugue in a performance in San Francesco in 2013 here. The recital format was the same, it appears: a mini-lecture illustrated with excerpts, a full performance (with the final Contrpunctus ending exactly where Bach stopped), then, after a pause, the Chorale Prelude Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit. This chorale was apparently dictated by Bach on his deathbed. Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, included it on the final page of the first edition of The Art of Fugue.

As a masterpiece of contrapuntal complexity, not to mention a lexicon of fugal technique, The Art of Fugue (or, perhaps more properly, Die Kunst der Fuge – I retain the title given for the recital) probably remains unsurpassed. Perhaps only Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s Opus Calvicembalisticum, which extends over a larger timespan, really deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

Maybe it is the reputation of Bach’s piece as the bad boy of fugue (bad boy in the sense of awesome) that led Hewitt to give her preamble. Read from the screen of an iPad – she used one for the main piece also – her brief but eloquent tour of Bach’s formidable edifice was fascinating. But it was the performance itself that moved and impressed in equal measure. Performing, as always, on a Fazioli piano, Hewitt gave a performance not only of great technical prowess, but one which seemed to go to the very heart of Bach. By laying out Bach’s complex processes with such an expert ear for both texture and formal shape, Hewitt let the music speak beautifully, timing her climaxes unerringly. Occasionally statements of a subject seemed over-highlighted, even hectoringly spotlit, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Hewitt seemed to revel in the more experimental pieces, those that dared to take texture and/or harmony to extremes. Contrapunctus III, for example, moved from the most fragile of beginnings to some sort of Otherworld. Similarly the Handelian dotted rhythms of Contrapunctus VI (“In stile francese”) moved to a spareness that spoke more of deconstruction than of dissolution. Hewitt gave the impression that the Whole World was here in BWV1080, from her monumental climaxes through to the great loneliness of their polar opposite.

When it came, the final Contrapunctus (XIV) seemed to move ever onwards towards an overwhelming conclusion. The end itself was bitter-sweet cruelty, a stark reminder of the mortal condition itself. Hewitt held her hands in mid-air, before after a pause the Chorale Prelude, Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (‘Before Thy throne I now appear’) began. The pause was not quite as long as the booklet hype had led us to believe, and perhaps it should have been longer. After the final Contrapunctus, just about anything would have been incongruous, and so it was that the logical idea of the Chorale Prelude gave little consolation or sense of closure, beautifully played as it was. It would have been far better, surely, to bathe the audience in the poignant afterglow of Bach stopping, mid-sentence.

Nevertheless, Hewitt’s achievement was remarkable. She remains one of the great Bach players in front of the public today.

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment