A Festival of Goldbergs: Angela Hewitt and Schaghajegh Nosrati

CanadaCanada Bach, Goldberg Variations: Angela Hewitt (piano), Chan Centre, Vancouver, 7.3.2018; Schaghajegh Nosrati (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 18.3.2018. (GN)

Angela Hewitt © Jan Gates
Angela Hewitt © Jan Gates

It is a feast indeed to hear two Goldberg Variations in just over a week, and we were fortunate that both Angela Hewitt and Schaghajegh Nosrati arrived to give us just that. Hewitt, of course, has dominated the last two decades with her readings, recording it originally for Hyperion in 1999, and following up with another effort in 2015. It remains a model interpretation, full of endless variety, technical ingenuity and searching depth. Her current concert, perhaps, went even further: it was one of the finest examples of Bach on the piano I have ever witnessed. In contrast, Schaghajegh Nosrati is a 29-year-old German pianist whose career has recently taken off from her award-winning showing at the 2014 Leipzig International Bach Competition, and her mentoring and concert collaborations with Sir András Schiff, another exalted pioneer of Bach on the piano. Though less detailed and refined than Hewitt’s, she gave a beautifully-toned reading of commitment and feeling, one that was communicative in a more youthful way.

I have always held up Angela Hewitt’s original 1999 recording of the Goldberg Variations as an important reference, but her degree of characterization and sense of overall narrative seems even more decisively etched now. This concert may have fostered some new extremes of tempo and dramatic emphasis, but these worked quite well in context. For Hewitt, it is the sheer range of postures and feelings inherent in the variations that are critical: from innocent frolic to searching contemplation, from burgeoning joy to the depths of human fragility – yet never letting one forget the wondrous structural integrity of the pieces or their virtuoso delights. On her cherished Fazioli, she achieves a remarkably pristine balance. Perhaps her efforts on this occasion were given a more heroic stature by her entrance on crutches; she had apparently fallen a few weeks ago.

Hewitt’s opening Aria was characteristically deliberate, hinting at almost timeless spaces, yet finding a tender, consoling character too. Some of the latter attributes registered in the opening variation, but from the next variation a sense of innocent frolic and caprice captivated, with little slivers of joy often peeking out from the pianist’s skillfully suspended and inflected lines. The real sense of journey began with the searching seventh variation, moving forward again from Variations 13 and 15, which probe an even greater depth of utterance. But one noticed many virtues in between: the sheer animation of some of the playing, the contrasting lightness elsewhere, the clarity achieved in complex textures, the sterling rhythmic control and always-telling symmetry of the phrasing between the hands.

The later variations naturally go further, and Hewitt blended their virtuoso demands with a more far-reaching narrative. Variation 21 was touchingly done, and the superb Variation 25 was presented with great intimacy, exploring all its fragility and darker corners and paying close attention to the rise and fall in phrases. One detected further metaphysical intimations thereafter but, in general, it was the conjunction of the pianist’s buoyant virtuosity (sometimes almost brazenly impetuous) with her overriding sense of nobility and determination that took the work home so compellingly. There was intellectual grasp and technical address throughout – but it all seemed absolutely fresh as a narrative. I really cannot think of a more suspending experience, almost kaleidoscopic in its variety and colour, and a perfect blend of local detail and long-run vision.

Young Schaghajegh Nosrati gave quite a different interpretation on her Steinway, bigger in scale, more fulsome in tone, but imbued with strong feeling. While Hewitt’s interpretation was by definition pianistic, she still gave the impression that many decisions on rhythms and ornaments were grounded in historical research. This was less apparent with Nosrati, very pianistic indeed, very serious, and sometimes romantic in gesture. Nosrati strikes the keys beautifully and firmly and, as one noted right from the Aria, a distinctive characteristic is her cultivated rubato which places a subtle flow under her counterpoint. This sense of flow was a key unifying ingredient in the performance, even if it sometimes proved too dominant and blurred micro-detailing and rhythmic contrast. The pianist’s dynamics also seemed to come off as relatively unvaried and on the loud side, so that one did not differentiate the colour of the variations as much, or note their intimate voice often. I might have liked a little less pedal at times, and a keener apprehension of wit. Still, one could never deny the beauty in this playing, and while the task of conveying nobility and a (sometimes passionate) sense of determination seemed to define Nosrati’s default posture, one could never doubt her commitment in achieving this.

The early variations were well articulated but somewhat weighty, lacking spring and caprice. Nonetheless, contrapuntal shape and rhythmic point did improve markedly as things progressed, yielding a sharper representation of both the complexity and buoyancy in the music. Towards the end, Nosrati increasingly unearthed the ‘wonder’ in Bach’s writing and the consummate Variation 25 brought a natural, deeply-felt response, almost uninhibited in feeling. Variation 29 might have been slightly jumpy rhythmically but a fine singing line was established in the thirtieth, and the closing Aria seemed to set the seal on the long emotional journey she had set for herself.  What clearly came across was that this is a young pianist with an almost religious devotion to the greatness of Bach’s music. Her overall sense of flow and consistent emotional ardour made everything add up with an attractive glow, even if the final result was ultimately a little too generalized.

I cannot think of a richer experience than hearing these two Goldberg Variations in such close proximity.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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