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Hewitt’s Bach Marathon Turned into the Final Lap-Book 1

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
10/22/2008 -  
J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I)
Angela Hewitt (Piano)

Angela Hewitt (© Simon Fowler)

Over the past fourteen months, renowned Bach specialist Angela Hewitt has been traveling all over the world, bearing great armfuls of Bach’s music. She has stepped on the soils as distant as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, many countries in Europe, Japan, Korea, South Africa, and Australia. On October 22, 24, the cycle of 48 preludes and fugues, a milestone of music history, is bestowed on Hong Kong’s Cultural Center, as Hewitt’s third last station of the Bach-World-Tour recitals (the final two stations will be at Beijing and Shanghai).

Besides recording and performing the complete Well-Tempered Clavier throughout the five continents, Angela Hewitt has another glorious feat – an eleven-year project in which all Bach’s major keyboard works are recorded. Among the recordings already released, there are Two- and Three-part Inventions, English Suites and French Suites, Six Partitas, Toccatas, Italian Concerto and French Overtures, Goldberg Variations, Keyboard Concertos, and other arrangements and miscellaneous keyboard works. Many great masters of piano – from Horowitz and Rubinstein in the golden age, Pollini and Ashkenazy nowadays, to Kissin and Lang Lang as the young generation – have the fear of performing Bach on the modern piano. Bach’s keyboard works, mostly written for the harpsichord, bring immense challenge to pianists on seeking a balance between authenticity and individuality. The Well-Tempered Clavier, which passes through all the 24 major and minor keys, and incorporates different patterns of contrapuntal textures and part-writings, sets enormous technical hurdles for the ten fingers. However, Ms. Hewitt’s nimble fingers seem to be naturally attuned to Bach’s music. This is how BBC Music Magazine described her playing: "I know of no musician whose Bach playing on any instrument is of greater subtlety, beauty of tone, persuasiveness of judgment or instrumental command than Hewitt’s is here."

When Ms. Hewitt came to Hong Kong four years ago and performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations, her crystalline articulation, singing lines and rhythmic vitality gave me a long-lasting impression. Tonight, once again, her nimble fingers refract every color of the spectrum from the 24 preludes and fugues, retaining these unique “Hewitt” qualities.

The opening note of the first prelude was astonishing, with a hesitating and whispering entry. This romanticized start, which can also be found in the C-sharp major prelude, the G minor prelude, or the F minor prelude (just to name a few), was a constant feature of her rendition throughout WTC Book 1. The extraneous dynamic contrast and tempo rubato was another contributor to Hewitt’s romantic account. She activated every muscle on the body to draw out the most profound and steely sound from the Fazioli piano, with the C-sharp minor fugue evoking Beethovenian chordal sonority and the last chord of the final fugue reminding Busoni’s Bach-arrangements. She used every possible opportunity to bring Bach’s colorful harmonic changes and modulations to life by applying excessive rubato and exaggerating agogic accents at cadences. While these unusual interpretations at first sounded too artificial, she soon turned them into her own Bachian language, naturally bringing the composer’s every musical thought to surface.

Another idiosyncratic “Hewitt” feature was her tempo choice. In WTC Book 1, the only prelude and fugue with Bach’s own tempo marking is the final, B minor one. In the remaining twenty-three, performers have their own freedom. Hewitt fully utilized this freedom by carefully measuring the tempo of each prelude and fugue, delivering each piece with its own character and uniqueness. The Czerny-like C minor and B-flat major preludes, the light-hearted and dancing G minor fugue, all had the kind of rarity that only Hewitt possesses.

One major disappointment came from the A major fugue, in which she was troubled by insufficient memory of the score and insecure fingerings. The last two lines of this fugue was flubbed and romped through with her own improvisations. Although she avoided a terrible disaster with her magnificent command of the instrument and wonderful familiarity to Bach’s semantics – many people in the concert hall may not notice this fatal mistake – this kind of indiscretion is unacceptable for such a consummate artist.

This otherwise impeccable performance won enthusiastic applause from the audience. Every attendee left the Cultural Center with an eager expectation on Friday’s WTC Book 2. Keep tuned to ConcertoNet for Friday’s concert review.

Angela Hewitt’s website

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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