Angela Hewitt, piano: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Chan Centre, July 31, 2018.

Stage photos by Jan Gates

Stage photos by Jan Gates


Angela Hewitt has spent the last quarter-century mastering and refining her interpretation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and she returns to it again for the 2018 Vancouver Bach Festival. Hewitt’s first recording for Hyperion in 1997 was performed on a Steinway, but this was supplanted by her 2007 recording on her signature Fazioli that coincided with her world tour with the work. This latter recording is generally regarded as a more subtle distillation of the range and colour in the 48 pieces. It also gave stronger definition to the exact makeup of Hewitt’s ‘brand’ of Bach on the piano relative to other notable historical styles: the prewar Edwin Fischer, the 1950s Glenn Gould, and the 1980s Sir András Schiff, although other artists (Sviatoslav Richter) might be mentioned too. One cannot say enough about Hewitt’s skill in execution, her ability to secure transparency in rhythm, shading and detail, and her capacity to weave an enticing narrative over the whole. While her live performances of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier a decade ago were fully memorable, this current rendering of Book I was unquestionably more commanding: her playing seemed consistently more luminous and concentrated than before, with the ‘meaning’ of many of the pieces mined and sharpened more decisively.

Hewitt’s later recording has a wonderful sense of deliberative unfolding and features a masterly use of colour in consort with keen structural and rhythmic awareness; no listener would ever regard it as other than a supreme achievement. Yet could it be that the passage of a decade has made the pianist think the approach is slightly too modest or compromising? Like Hewitt's performance of the Goldberg Variations here last March (review), this new reading of Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier seemed more dramatic and spontaneous, with even greater extremes of tempos and rhythmic emphasis and, to some extent, a greater reaching to the celestial heavens. It seemed like a fuller and more direct statement of what the pianist really wanted to say, and an ultimate flowering of the possibilities for contrast and dramatic expression in the pieces. In lesser hands, the increased intensity and range might easily be seen as mannered and too romantic; here it was presented with such intellectual absorption and discipline that it all made perfect sense. In fact, it seemed that an already strong narrative line was further nourished. Hewitt’s secret lay in referring to extremes very consistently throughout the work, so one always had the idea that they were integral to the penetration of the deepest secrets of these 24 supreme pieces.

Many of the broad interpretative characteristics remained in place: the effervescence and joy in the major key preludes, and the suspension, point and contrapuntal rigour in the fugues. Yet the former now often seemed more colourful, insistent and imbued with virtuoso delight, while the fugues often found an additional underlying flow beneath their immediate counterpoint, serving to further anchor long-run structural shape and inevitability. Then, there was the keener awareness of fantasy, the wonderful ruminative moments, and the noble determination in the many fugal treads.


The opening C major prelude has always been light and gossamer-like in Hewitt’s hands, but here it seemed lighter still, with more undulations in the phrasing. The attack and speed in the second prelude was more intense and insistent, almost with a touch of manic frenzy, while the fugue had more vertical elevation. No. 3 had a more pronounced feeling of skipping joy, and whim and caprice, extending through a particularly athletic fugue. I admired the sublime No. 4 in its earlier version but this rendering seemed at least as searching and suspended. The quietly descending phrases seemed to have more sense of space around them, and I sensed new vistas. The bubbling freedom in the preludes to No. 5 and 6 are now conveyed with somewhat more air, fantasy and frolic while the exposition of both fugues seemed more sharply etched. Throughout, one was always cognizant of the tight symmetry and point in the pianist’s phrasing, especially in imitative passages. At the same time, Hewitt never let one forget her sheer intellectual command over the pieces, nor her desire to express Bach’s complexity in the most transparent way. I always felt that Hewitt’s contrasts within a piece were sharper than previously, and the pieces themselves were more strongly differentiated.

After the beautifully buoyant fugue of No. 7, the sense of fragility and inward deliberation in the great No. 8 was conveyed most impressively: the very deepest musing that embodies all shades of doubt and struggle, this time building with possibly a greater sense of grandeur and determination. Nos 9-11 were also very fine, having a keen grasp of both their contemplative fabric and animation. Hewitt probed the fantasy in the prelude to No. 9 and the frenetic, imaginative postures of the 10th with the most telling insight. No. 11 had a stunning balance and clarity in its line. No. 12 seemed to be moved to a more exalted scale: more wondrous in the prelude and grander in the fugue. More generally, one noted that the fugues often started out  with a playful staccato feel, beautifully elevated, but then were given increasing dramatic weight as they continued, often ending with a slight broadening of the chords to give a stronger sense of finality. Another intriguing dimension was Hewitt's ability to combine structural cogency with more mercurial elements while also allowing little moments of tenderness and vulnerability to peek through the corners.


The important thing about the readings of the last 12 preludes and fugues is how well they affirmed and extended earlier postures, yielding a sterling continuity of the narrative. How well the searching journey in the fugue in No. 14 is tied to back to Nos. 4 and 8, and just how much the bubbling joy and ebullience in the prelude in No. 15, and the frolicsome delight in No. 17, recall its predecessors. There were abundant technical joys too: Hewitt’s elegance and impeccable layering of the counterpoint (Nos. 13 and 16); her ability to find rhythmic point and colour within a suspended lyrical line (Nos. 18 and 19). In the more athletic passages, it seemed that she was both quicker and more sparkling than previously.

There was a fine sense of anticipation as we approached the final four pieces. In No. 20, Hewitt wedded its bristling virtuosity and declamatory statement with a lovely whimsicality in the fugue while, in No. 23, she artfully provided the right feeling of comfort between the celestial reaches of the great fugues of Nos. 22 and 24.  Both fugues seemed to build with more determination, amplitude and grandness than previously – consolidating a true sense of final testament.

There were absolutely inexhaustible riches to ponder in Angela Hewitt’s latest interpretation of the Well-Tempered Clavier. By the end of her long journey, everyone in the audience could not help but know just how special this event was.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018