Growing up with Bach

2003-11-03 / Daily Telegraph / Geoffrey Norris

As a child, Angela Hewitt danced around the room to Bach – now, the Canadian pianist is widely acclaimed as today’s pre-eminent player of his music. Geoffrey Norris meets her

When you meet her, the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt seems to be the very antithesis of someone who has been acclaimed as the pre-eminent Bach player of the day. Warm, bubbly and with an infectious laugh, she scarcely conjures up that old-fashioned image of Bach as an austere composer of contrapuntal conundrums, or of dusty, musty academicism. Quite the reverse. Her outgoing personality is surely one of the factors that make her Bach playing live and breathe, which in turn has brought her a wide international following. Her recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday – which includes Bach’s Goldberg Variations – has long been sold out.

Hewitt is not a Baroque specialist in the sense that she will play nothing else. Her repertoire is catholic – all the Beethoven concertos, the major Mozart concertos, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and much French music – but in live recitals and on her series of Hyperion recordings she has forged a link with Bach that has become ineradicable in the public mind.

“I grew up with Bach,” she says. “My father was the organist at the Anglican Cathedral in Ottawa for 49 years, so I spent every Sunday listening to him play all those wonderful organ works. From the beginning I loved the excitement of the fugues, the drama and colour of the toccatas. And my parents, who were my first teachers, started me off on Bach right away, emphasising the importance of learning his music as the basis of piano technique. I was very lucky to have that.”

Something else that her parents stressed was the significance of dance in Bach’s music. His suites are full of sarabandes, gigues, bourrees and other movements with roots in courtly dance music.

“I started ballet at the age of three,” says Hewitt, “so I was always responding to music by dancing round the room. I’ve always liked to unravel complicated things, too. It’s something in my nature. My mother used to tie me into my playpen and I’d spend hours undoing the knots.” Graduating from playpen to public platform, Hewitt included several of Bach’s pieces in her first recital, given at the age of nine.

Any young musician growing up in Canada must have been particularly conscious of the enigmatic brilliance of Glenn Gould, the Toronto-born pianist who, however idiosyncratic his interpretations might have been, was one of the signal exponents of Bach on the piano.

“He was on television often on Sunday nights and we would watch him,” recalls Hewitt. “I was fascinated by him, and I remember that one of my first LPs – I still have it – was his Bach Two- and Three-part Inventions. But we’d listen and I’d say, ‘That piece should surely go slowly. Why’s he playing it so fast?’, or ‘That piece is obviously a fast one. Why’s he playing it so slowly?’ I knew from the beginning that there was something a bit strange in his character that meant that we could listen to him but would never imitate him.”

Gould’s example, however, meant that Hewitt never had any compunction about playing Bach on the piano.

“My parents explained to me that it was written for the harpsichord – I actually had one in my bedroom for a while as a child – but what frustrated me about it was that you couldn’t taper a phrase. I started playing the violin at the age of six and did the Bach violin concertos on the violin before playing his keyboard versions. I played the recorder, and sang, too, and I couldn’t understand why in all the rest of his music you could lighten a second note or play it softer, but when you played the harpsichord you couldn’t. It seemed to me limiting in that way. Having Gould there, and also [the American Bach pianist] Rosalyn Tureck – whose LPs I had as a kid – I just felt that Bach came out beautifully on the piano, and I still feel that. There’s never a time that I wish I were playing another keyboard instrument.”

‘Bach,” thinks Hewitt, “would have been delighted to have had a piano. You can sustain sounds on it: you don’t have to keep trilling to sustain a note. Then there are the different colours you can achieve for the part-writing in the fugues. On the harpsichord you have no chance. Bach’s part-writing is so well done that it still comes out on the harpsichord, but you can do more on the piano. It’s very difficult. It’s a special study, and you can’t expect Bach to come off well on the piano if you play it with the same sort of technique or approach to keyboard playing as for Chopin. What’s interesting is that if you listen to 30 seconds or less of all the pianists specialising in Bach, you know immediately who it is. So little is written in the score that we each develop our own style.”

With her recitals regularly oversubscribed, Hewitt gives the lie to the notion that traditional ways of presenting classical music can be an audience deterrent, but she admits that “a lot is up to the artists themselves. I don’t mind talking to an audience, I write my own CD notes, I sign CDs after a concert. Overall in general presentation, it’s important to go to the people. An artist these days can’t just close himself or herself off and expect the hour or two on stage to be it. OK, you can say ‘I’m not going to wear tails or an evening gown’, but I don’t really think that that has much to do with it. It’s up to the artist to communicate. A great artist will do that. You don’t need gimmicks to make a recital interesting. If the people in an audience are really taken with an artist and feel they’ve been moved, they go out of the hall feeling better than when they went in. That’s the important thing.”

Angela Hewitt plays Couperin, Ravel and Bach at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday. Information: 020 7960 4201. Returns only.