The “High-Priestess” of Bach Playing Comes Back to 92 Street Y
Kaufmann Hall at 92 Street Y
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Concertos No. 4 in A Major, BWV 1055, No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1053, No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056, & No. 7 in G Minor, BWV 1058 – “Triple” Concerto for flute, violin, keyboard in A Minor, BWV 1044
Angela Hewitt (piano), Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
(© Roman Markowicz)
After her unprecedented and several seasons‑long, traversal of all the keyboard works of J.S. Bach at the 92 Street Y, the Canadian‑born pianist Angela Hewitt returned there to present more than half of Bach’s keyboard concertos, this time with the assistance of the string players from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In my concert-attending activities, I recall only one other cycle of Bach piano concertos offered some decades back by the late and sorely missed Peter Serkin.
In the age of completeness, one no longer questions the idea of presenting complete cycles of anything, yet I sometimes feel that perhaps playing a whole evening of Bach ( or Vivaldi, or Handel) concertos is a bit problematic.
One may say that an artist as formidable and respected as Ms. Hewitt would surely have brought some fresh approach to those works thus justifying the performance of such a large portion in one sitting. Indeed one could scarcely complain about the level of playing and I must add that I am absolutely in favor of presenting any keyboard works of J.S. Bach on a modern piano. Yes, even with that in mind, the presentation of works that sound‑wise present a bit of sameness is a chancy proposition.
There is no doubt that the most interesting work on the program was the “Triple Concerto” for Flute, Violin, and Keyboard. Similarly to the other keyboard concertos, this one too is based on previously composed material. Similarly to the famous Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, it features three instruments in the concertante parts and a very demanding piano part. It is based on an extensive keyboard solo work, Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 894), that is being turned effortlessly into an imposing concerto movement. The second movement is taken from an organ Trio sonata and the final Alla breve again takes on the solo Fugue. Again, as in the already mentioned Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, there is a concluding solo piano cadenza which adds to the importance of that work. Here, in addition to Ms. Hewitt, we heard two very competent instrumentalists Abigail Fayetta, violinist, and Anthony Trionfo, flutist, who acquitted themselves very admirably in their equally important parts.
The rest of the works are composed of “recycled” material: if the last Concerto No. 7 in G Minor sounds like the violin concerto it’s because it has been reworked from the Concerto in A minor. Practically each of the movements in other works was utilized elsewhere: cantatas, concertos, and solo organ works. These concertos were written during Bach’s stay in Leipzig since 1729 , where in addition to being a Kantor he also served as director of Collegium Musicum. It was a music society and consisted of both professionals (when needed) and music students to serve as members of the ensembles performing at the famous Kaffeehaus Zimmermann, a place for drinking, smoking, and pleasurable listening. That fact, I imagine, would explain the relatively uncomplicated orchestra parts for the solo concertos, which did not demand virtuosity absolutely needed for instance in the Brandenburg Concertos. So having wonderful string players from the Orpheus Orchestra could be considered a luxury. They seemed to follow the discreet directions from the piano quite aptly. And this time the customary changes of the concertmaster for each piece on the program were limited to only two: one before and one after the intermission.
As one might have expected, the performances by such an experienced and formidable pianist as Ms. Hewitt left little to criticize. Her clear and crisp articulation as well as artful ornamentations were the obvious asset. For the soloist, these concertos present not a small demand as Bach expertly transcribed the original single‑line solo parts to suit the keyboard idiom. So there was quite a bit of passage work for the piano and Ms. Hewitt delivered it skillfully. Yet, in her Bach playing there was often one element missing from her interpretations and that was the implicit sense of dance. And we must not forget how much of Bach’s music derives from the dance movements. Some pianists, and here András Schiff comes to mind, make it one of the salient elements of their performances, but I am afraid that the relevant influence of dance is seldom on Ms. Hewitt’s mind.
In her notes for the concertos, which are now available only by scanning the QR code in the program booklets (it saves on the printing yet often demands the use of the phone during the performance...), Ms. Hewitt lovingly writes about performing the harpsichord concertos on the modern piano: “If Bach could write for violin, oboe or voice a singing, melodic line that would have its natural inflections, phrasing, and rise and fall, then why would he not have wanted to hear it on a keyboard instrument that was capable of doing the same thing (since the harpsichord could not)?” And then again in regard to the middle movement of the Concerto No. 5 in F Minor, originally thought to be played by the oboe “Presented over a pizzicato accompaniment, it is short, simple, and serenely beautiful and moving. If ever one needs evidence to show how Bach could make the keyboard sing, this is it.” I could not agree with Ms. Hewitt more! The only problem I noticed is that in her piano playing there was precious little cantilena, beautiful legato, rise‑and‑fall of the phrases, and any sense of what we commonly call “feeling.” To my ears in too many moments, that expressive and heartfelt singing‑on‑the‑piano was simply lacking, missed, absent. I don’t think that the Chopinesque rubatos would be appropriate but still a little feeling here and there could make a difference. My quibbles were not shared by the large and enthusiastic audience who gave our Canadian pianist a prolonged and hearty ovation.
This concert was in a way a throwback to the older, almost forgotten pre‑pandemic times with the house almost full, the balcony open again, and...the proof of Covid vaccination again demanded at the entrance. Well, the folks at the administrative offices of 92 Street Y surely must be “for science”… As for me, this time showing the back of an insurance card sufficed, but if the guards at the door performing their “duty” were a little less bored with this insane prolonging of already discredited procedures, I would most likely not be writing this review now.