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Hewitt’s Bach Marathon Final Lap - Book II

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
10/24/2008 -  
J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book II)
Angela Hewitt (Piano)

Angela Hewitt (© Peter Hundert)

This evening’s concert marked the end of Angela Hewitt’s Hong Kong performances of her Bach-World-Tour, as well as the last performance of WTC Book II in the whole tour – Hewitt will only perform WTC Book I in the final two stops: Beijing and Shanghai. As Ms. Hewitt described it in yesterday’s mater-class, WTC Book II is structurally more massive, texturally more complicated, and technically, as well as musically, more demanding. This book was published in 1744, twenty-two years after Book I. Unlike Book I, most pieces in Book II do not have Bach’s existing manuscript. Because of the various sources available, it is impossible for a performer to blindly follow any text or edition. Instead, a performer’s own judgment between authenticity and individuality is crucial. Another challenge for performing the 24 pairs of prelude and fugue in Book II is their complexity. In contrast with some of the preludes in Book I, such as the well-known C major, none of the preludes in Book II is composed merely as a continuous figuration. Although the C-sharp major Prelude begins in such way, it soon leads into an Allegro fugal section which the famous harpsichordist Landowska described as “an exquisitely cool shower after the dreamy prelude”. The variety of styles and genres can also be found in the C major Prelude, which begins with a sustained pedal evoking a sacred organ work; the B major and D minor preludes, conjuring up a harpsichord concerto; the G minor Prelude with French-Overture style throughout, and the D major Prelude with a fanfare orchestral opening. The fugues in Book II are also in a more expansive and spacious scale, with increased instance of dynamic markings, articulation and tempo indications.

This evening, Angela Hewitt performed with the score in front of her, without compromising the quality of delivery. What transpired were her cleanness, wide ranged expressions, and her harmonic and structural awareness. Hardly a Bach’s musical gesture passed by without Ms. Hewitt bringing thoughtful interpretation to the surface. What remained most strikingly impressive was her crystalline intonation. Indeed, it is very difficult to find a rivalry to compete in excellence. I cannot think of any Bach performer who has excelled like Hewitt with such purity of sound and transparency of tone colour. Through this tonal transparency, Hewitt portrayed every light and shade with poetic insight. While the D major Fugue and B-flat major Prelude died away in vaporous pianissimo, the G minor Fugue (Hewitt played the bass line in octaves instead of single notes) and E-flat major Fugue ended in Busoni-style pounding chords. The G-sharp minor Prelude, with Bach’s own dynamic markings, was rendered with utmost and convincing dynamic contrasts. Hewitt also frequently used subito pianissimo to draw out Bach’s adventurous chromatic harmony and Weberian dissonance, such as in the A-flat major and A minor fugues.

Super legato articulation was still the unique performance practice to Hewitt’s unique Bachian style. While Glenn Gould – her Canadian compatriot and the Bach authority – stressed every voice with equal importance, Hewitt often dissolved the counter-subjects and continuous semiquavers into misty and hazy background, tellingly emphasizing the “main melody”. None of the voices was sung with the same character and colour. Despite this idiosyncratic legato feature, Hewitt’s pedaling was kept at minimum, with most of the smoothness of finger-legato. This reminds me of Andras Schiff’s impeccable piano recital early this year, in which he played Bach’s Italian Concerto completely without the use of the pedal, though with extreme smoothness and lyricism.

My one minor reservation to tonight’s otherwise fine performance is Hewitt’s tempo rubato, which was frequently and excessively applied to outline the structural arc of each piece. The codas of some preludes and fugues were delivered in a much slower tempo, with a long pause or rubato bringing it in. She used every possible opportunity to apply rubato for sectional changes and, at cadential points, leading to several false endings prior to the real ending. While these false endings sounded fresh and rapt at first, it soon became tiresome. Her extraneous agogic accents, usually put at the top note of a singing melodic line, also contributed to her “romantic” Bachian account.

The final B minor fugue brought Hewitt’s Hong Kong events to an end. There are only two more stops before this marathon runner passes the line. We are proud to have been one of the witnesses alongside the road of this historical marathon. With her unflagging musical interpretation and unique intonation, Angela Hewitt will certainly be one of the most important Bach performers in the history of piano music.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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