Turning the corner on Angela Hewitt’s momentous four-year Bach Odyssey

CanadaCanada J. S. Bach: Angela Hewitt (piano). Roy Barnett Recital Hall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 26.2.2020. (GN)

Angela Hewitt © Ole Christiansen

Bach – Four Duets BWV802-805; Eighteen Little Preludes BWV924-8, 930, 933-43, 999; Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV944; Overture in the French Style BWV831; Italian Concerto in F minor BWV971

In many respects, Angela Hewitt has been on a Bach Odyssey her entire life. She played, danced and sang Bach throughout her childhood, and has carried her inspiration forward from her victory in the Toronto International Bach Competition in 1985 (interview). She began her massive project to record all of Bach’s keyboard works for Hyperion in 1994, and finished up with The Art of Fugue in 2014. For all that she has found time to make distinguished excursions into the French repertoire, as well as Mozart and Beethoven, a second Bach Odyssey began in 2016 when she started the traversal again, planning 12 concerts of the complete keyboard compositions in London, New York, Tokyo, Florence and Ottawa, her home town. The target end point is June 2020 with a return to The Art of Fugue, at which time she will receive both the Wigmore Hall Medal and City of Leipzig Bach Medal.

Vancouver has already seen two installments of her current project: the Goldberg Variations (review) and Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (review). This concert formed part of the pianist’s visit to the University of British Columbia to give the Dal Grauer Memorial Lectures and masterclasses. The programme placed together some of the remaining odds-and-ends (as she put it) in Bach’s vast keyboard output. For those who like nostalgia, it actually contained two pieces (the Four Duets and the Italian Concerto) that figured in her first recording for Deutsche Grammophon, one of the prizes of her triumph in the Toronto competition. That the pianist was enjoying ‘old friends’ was evident throughout the evening and, for all the widely-publicized misfortunes of Hewitt’s beloved Fazioli at the hands of negligent movers, she seemed full of joy and radiance throughout the concert. She did get a brand new Fazioli to play here.

Hewitt has often remarked that the reason she wishes to return to all the pieces is the new range of colour she finds in them, doubtlessly connected with resources offered by the Fazioli (as compared to a Steinway). But this is only part of the story. A clear element of her development has been a more sophisticated structural awareness and shaping, allowing the composer’s counterpoint to be motivated more naturally in longer paragraphs and permitting a richer narrative line to emerge. It is also a stronger Bach now, occasionally dramatic and imperious, with greater extremes in sentiment but also more deliberative and decisive. As always, there is immense care in building the counterpoint through varied textures and shading, identifying a natural building and release with acute attention to dynamics. In terms of technical virtuosity and agility, the pianist may be as strong now as she ever was.

This concert was rewarding in its variety. The opening Four Duets, while slight, offered a fine set of contrasting virtues: structural clarity in the first, beguiling animation in the second and a subtle sense of the galant in the third, while the strength of the fugal line impressed in the last. The Fantasia and Fugue in A minor was noteworthy for how the rounded shaping of lines played off against its architecture and structural discipline. Perhaps the real treat was the Eighteen Little Preludes, which were characterized so completely (and individually) that each seemed an absolute jewel. This was a feast of variety, full of the pianist’s spirit and displaying many of the ingredients that one can identify in the greater works: the sense of the whimsical, the contemplative shadings of an inner world, the nobility and grandness, the effervescent buoyancy of expression and the wonderful joys of the composer’s cantabile line. Above all, there was freedom in her playing.

Hewitt’s enthusiasm was infectious, even if the opening to the Overture in the French Style might have seemed a little overeager for all its superb double dotting. However, things soon settled down. The dances were strongly characterized, pointed and alive, with a fine layering of texture and plenty of artful shading. Her ability to always find some structural device to ensure the continuity of the counterpoint was both subtle and impressive. Tonal articulation ranged widely – from the angular and clipped to a rich burnished sonority. There can be little doubt that the eleven pieces added up well: the concentration and power at the close were formidable.

If there was one work that suggested some qualifications, it was the (over-popular) Italian Concerto.  Hewitt seemed to forego her characteristic commitment to the suspension of a ‘pianistic’ line, instead emphasizing more linear and virtuosic dimensions (as on a harpsichord). This was an interesting switch, but from the beginning the lines seemed more compressed, with the phrases and counterpoint less clean and finished. The famous Andante also seemed slightly too slow and dispersed. Nonetheless, the zippy finale made amends, bringing the work home with its characteristic joy and delight.

Angela Hewitt’s visit to UBC was an absolute pleasure. Even leaving aside the experience afforded the general public, it was so good for music students to witness pianism of this quality, and for them to be with the artist in the final stages of her memorable project.

Geoffrey Newman

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

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