United States J.S. Bach: Angela Hewitt (piano), Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y, New York, 2015-29-2015 (SSM)
Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Chorale Prelude, “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit,” BWV 668
Any performance of Bach’s still-mysterious touchstone of Western music, The Art of Fugue, must by the work’s nature be a compromise. Played as written it would be endless, pages and pages and almost all in the same meter and key, without any guidance as to how fast or slow a given contrapunctus (a short piece that uses some type of counterpoint) would be. It is really in the hands of the artist to more or less improvise what feels appropriate. We do know that if Bach were to have played this music on a harpsichord, he would only have been able to minimally vary dynamics. We’ll never know if Bach would have approved of the decisions that must be taken to make the work palatable, or even if he saw it simply as a pedagogical tool like his Inventions or The Well-Tempered Clavier.
There have been a number of attempts to reign in The Art of Fugue by adding a second keyboard, transcribing it for quartet, or playing it on an organ (which has the advantage of producing another voice from the foot pedals). Considering how popular Bach’s Goldberg Variations became, could the same happen here? Probably not, but if it were to happen, Angela Hewitt would be in the forefront.
She gave a short introduction to the work, mentioning several passages that many think cannot be played with two hands. The most notorious example is Contrapunctus 11, which Hewitt called “torturous,” and the 13th, which cannot be played with just 10 fingers. (At some point Bach realized this and revised it for two keyboards.) Hewitt solves this problem, stating elsewhere, that “by adding lightness and agility, a few broken leaps and on the piano some judicious use of the pedal.” Whatever she did, she managed to execute the impossible.
The AOF is one of a kind, and performances of it cannot easily be compared to other recitals or, for that matter, Hewitt’s own body of works. This isn’t the Bach of the Brandenbergs, St. Matthew Passion, or Goldberg Variations. There is little of Bach’s rhythmic verve and fluidity of execution. But this is music that won’t yield to a lighter touch: fire needed to be added and it was. Crescendo, fortissimo, and legato were there, not in the score but in Hewitt’s head and hands.
As was to be expected from her previous projects such as the Well-Tempered Clavier, she has thoroughly mastered her subject, and it showed with every Contrapunctus and Canon, all of which were well thought through. Tempos were moderate, probably the best way to play as we don’t really know what Bach would expect. It could be debated whether Hewitt’s codas had to be so dramatic, but there is little room in these dense pieces to add drama, and most of the time they were welcome.
Hewitt played her own Fazioli piano, which looks beautiful and sounds it as well. Its clean-pitched tone makes the Steinway seem appropriate for works of the 19th and 20th centuries but less so for Classical and Baroque pieces.
At the close of the concert, Hewitt was drained and pale after a cathartic experience that, given the audience’s response, she clearly had shared with each of us.