The Well-Tempered Clavier with Angela Hewitt
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, 24 Preludes and Fugues, BWV846-869
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Being present at Angela Hewitt’s performance of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” made us all feel like Goethe, listening to the young Mendelssohn playing the same series of preludes and fugues. As the poet famously remarked, “It was when my mind was in a state of perfect composure and free from external distractions, that I obtained the true impress of your grand master. I said to myself: ‘It was as if the eternal harmony was conversing within itself, as it may have done in the bosom of god, just before the creation of the world.” Performing on her massive and modern, but exquisitely graceful 9-foot Fazioli concert grand piano, Angela Hewitt made us feel witness to the same blessed event. She is on a global tour performing these pieces in many cities around the world. Don’t miss it!
My seat on the keyboard side at the back of the hall on the second level was superb. I had thought the seats closer to the stage would be better for piano, but I was wrong. The piano was clear and bright but infinitely mellow, easily filling the hall with its glorious sound. Russell Johnson, the late master acoustician who designed the hall would be proud. The music seemed as complex as any symphony. The performance was so singular that it seemed as unique an experience as hearing Glenn Gould play the “Goldberg Variations” for the first time. Although her approach could not have been more different than Gould’s. From my seat, the sound was so perfectly round that I imagined her performing at the much smaller Salle Gaveau in Paris. But the Orange County hall felt like it might be even better that night, perhaps larger but somehow even more intimate.
Dean Corey, President of the recital’s presenter, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County gave an exceptional lecture before the concert, humorous and erudite at once. He gave a technical introduction to the Well-Tempered Clavier, 48 pieces that cover all 12 major and minor keys. He described the differences in the approach to tuning and pitch, as it has varied from the baroque period to today, and from region to region across Europe. With both a modern piano and a period harpsichord to illustrate, he described the prelude - often a “vertical” composition of arpeggiated chords, versus the fugue – a “horizontal” canon of several voices beginning in various pitches. Bach wrote the first book of this series in his 30s and the second book 20 years later. Within our lifetime, the practice has been to play Bach on the piano without the use of the pedal. Kathy Smith, the official tuner for the Philharmonic Society helped to explain the difference between Bach’s even-tempered tuning and the older pure tuning system that preceded it. The “Well-Tempered Clavier” illustrates the versatility of the even-tempered system, which eliminates the “harmonic waste,” or the out-of-tune, unusable chords that inevitably appear in the mean-tempered system of tuning. The complexity of the discussion was daunting, but fascinating and illuminating in the context of Bach and Angela Hewitt.
The clarity and purity of her performance appeared a reflection of her mind and spirit. Her interpretation seemed literal, in the sense that she took no emotional license in terms of tempo or dynamics, almost a harpsichord-like approach to the piano. In a sense, she was the opposite of Glenn Gould. But she had clearly studied the preludes and fugues within an inch of their lives. She had resolved every issue of interpretation so thoroughly that her performance embodied the concept of even-temperament, creating eternal harmonies conversing with themselves in the mind of god, a reflection of a perfect universe.
Thomas Aujero Small