2005-08-07 / Orange County Register / Timothy Mangan
Getting Bach to basics
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt plays the composer’s music her own way, as she’ll demonstrate this week in O.C.
A page of music by Johann Sebastian Bach is something of a blank slate for the performer – or a cipher, perhaps. Like other composers of his era, Bach (1685-1750) left much more up to the discretion and creativity of the performer than do his modern counterparts. Bach supplied the raw material for a performance – the notes on the page, the rhythms – but little else. Tempos, phrasing, articulation, dynamics and expression were largely the province of the performer. Bach even allowed plenty of room for improvisation. It’s as if his music, as he wrote it, was a basic recipe for a performance: “Here are the main ingredients,” he says, “Now go cook.”
Not surprisingly, performers have always tended to re-create Bach in their own image, for their own times. In 1829, Mendelssohn revived the “St. Matthew Passion,” turning it into a Romantic work for lush orchestra and massive choir. A century later, Leopold Stokowski gave Bach the Technicolor treatment. Anton Webern imagined him as a proto 12-tone composer. Wanda Landowska returned Bach to the harpsichord (or what passed for it in her day) and was one of the first to make claims of authenticity. (Arguing with another performer about how Bach should be played, Landowska famously put her foot down. “Well, my dear,” she said, “you continue to play Bach your way, and I’ll continue to play him his way.”)
Glenn Gould made Bach sound neurotic. For the technological age, Walter Carlos switched on Bach, performing remarkable versions of the composer’s music on Moog synthesizer.
In these scientific times, a historical approach prevails, drawing upon what we know of the instruments that Bach wrote for, the size of his orchestras and choirs (one scholar, Joshua Rifkin, has controversially surmised that Bach’s choirs amounted to one singer a part), even the conditions of performance. The results are often invigorating, but hardly uniform.
And then there’s Angela Hewitt. The Canadian pianist, who performs Bach in Orange County and San Diego this week with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and who has recorded all of the composer’s major keyboard works (the first woman to do so) for Hyperion, argues that this music is done a disservice on the harpsichord, the instrument they were performed upon in his time. Oddly enough, Hewitt defends her view on historical grounds.
Take, for instance, the harpsichord concertos, which Hewitt has recently recorded with the ACO. None of them, it turns out, was originally written with the harpsichord in mind, Hewitt explains.
Rather, each was earlier written for other instruments and then later adapted by the composer for the harpsichord.
The two concertos she performs in O.C. – the G minor, BWV 1058, and the D major, BWV 1054 – were violin concertos first. For Hewitt, this affects the way she plays them.
“My style, especially in the slow movements, is more legato, more cantabile,I think,” in imitation of the violin, she says. “I mean, on the violin you can produce a wonderful singing tone.” In her teens, it was as a violinist, in fact, that Hewitt first performed these concertos.
In her view, the harpsichord is simply incapable of doing this music justice.
“I listen to a lot of harpsichord, mainly for ornamentation. If I see a harpsichord I’ll go to it and try out all my Bach that I’m playing at the moment. But then I get fed up that I can’t, what I call, taper a phrase.” This expressive device, of one note being louder or softer than the one preceding it, was available to Bach for every instrument he wrote for except the harpsichord and organ, Hewitt points out. The harpsichord’s deficiency was one of the reasons the piano (originally called fortepiano for its ability to play loud and soft) was invented in the first place.
“Whereas people think, ‘Oh no, it was written for the harpsichord, you know, it has to be sort of detached and monochrome.’ But no, I think Bach would have been thrilled to have a keyboard instrument that could sing like the violin or the human voice or an oboe,” she says.
Born in Ottawa, Hewitt has been playing Bach since she was 3 or 4, and hearing it before that. Her father, Godfrey Hewitt, was the organist and choirmaster at the city’s Christ Church Cathedral, and a traveling soloist known for his Bach. Her mother was a piano teacher who soon took on Angela as a student.
“Music was this natural thing that was done at home and I took to it very easily,” she says. “My mother gave me my first lessons, I think, when I was just 3 years old. And so it was great, I must say, to grow up with parents who were such good musicians and not to learn bad habits at the beginning and really be taught so well right from the start.”
Her father was the stickler, not the teacher. “My father would come in sort of when I had the pieces prepared, when we felt that they had reached a certain stage and I had them memorized. Then it came time to play them for my father to get those final touches, and especially with the Bach.” Hewitt has a tape of her 4-year-old self and her brother playing some Bach and other pieces for her father. “It’s so funny to listen to it now. My father was such a perfectionist, you know, that he always meant to sort of splice it together and get the perfect version. But he never did, so we have me playing each piece about 20 times to get it absolutely perfect. So I learned about recording very early on.
“At one point my father says, ‘Once more, please’ and my mother says ‘Godfrey- they’re only children,’ ” Hewitt says, laughing.
Though she showed talent early, Hewitt’s parents brought her along slowly. “The Lawrence Welk Show” came courting when she was 4, but the offer was turned down. Hewitt gave her first solo recital at 9. Her first appearance with an orchestra came at 10.
“I played the Goldberg Variations at 16,” Hewitt says, “which I think is more of an achievement.” Her teacher, French pianist Jean-Paul Sévilla, gave it to her then and she ended up performing it the same year. “That was the best thing he ever did, actually. Because now when I play it – of course, it’s completely transformed – but to just have learned it at that age, it’s so much a part of me.”
In her late teens she started entering competitions. “Between the ages of 17 and 26 I really was one of the people in the world who did the most competitions,” she says.
Hewitt calls competitions “a necessary evil,” but feels she benefited from them. She learned a lot of music preparing for those competitions, pieces that remain in her repertoire. She traveled a lot, too. Perhaps most important, though, by going to competitions Hewitt first realized that she had a shot at a career.
“At those competitions, I always listened to my competitors, listened to all the young pianists from all over the world, and saw that, gee, maybe I have a chance. You know, because no matter what the result, I listened to the level (that competed) and I felt that I had a chance.”
By the time she won the Toronto International Bach Competition in 1985, Hewitt’s career was well under way – she had already played recitals in New York’s Alice Tully Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall – but the win solidified her position. She never had to participate in a competition again.
Hewitt’s Bach has received accolades from critics and has made her Hyperion’s best-selling artist. Climaxing with the recordings of the keyboard concertos, released in June and soon on the Billboard charts, her traversal of the keyboard works has reached 18 CDs.
Working with the Australian ensemble on the concertos, Hewitt, along with leader Richard Tognetti, strove for a historical accuracy, attempting to duplicate a Baroque style of playing on modern instruments.
“First of all, for the orchestra the expression is done with the bow,” Hewitt says, “they don’t do vibrato to get their expression, which is a much much later invention.”
There is also a constant inflection in the musical phrasing, Hewitt adds – “Like you get in speech, not exaggerated, but the constant sort of rise and fall of the musical line.” The recordings reveal wonderfully airy textures, crisp articulations and a lively rhythmic swing. One can easily imagine a jazz rhythm section playing along with these performances.
These days Hewitt keeps an apartment in Ottawa (“I have all my childhood stuff, and where else am I going to put that?”), a small apartment in London, her professional base for 20 years, and a house she built a few years ago in the Umbria region of Italy, on Lake Trasimeno. “It’s just been one of the best things I’ve done in my life, really. To go there and to have a place to practice on my own concert grand piano.” This year she launched the Trasimeno Music Festival there, with performances in the Palazzo Ducale of Gubbio and the Castle of the Knights of Malta in Magione.
Being a Canadian pianist specializing in Bach, Hewitt is asked constantly about what she thinks of the legendary Gould. Last year, the Times Literary Supplement in London even asked her to review the latest Gould biography.
“I had dreaded reading another biography of Glenn Gould,” her review began. “Aren’t there enough already? Sometimes it seems as though I can never get away from him.”
“As a kid I saw him regularly on Canadian television,” her review continues. ” ‘Who’s that kook?,’ I asked my parents. Playing with his nose practically on the keyboard, and always at tempos that even at that age I knew were bizarre, he was clearly recognizable as a serious presence in Canadian musical life, but not perhaps, one to be closely imitated.”
Hewitt ultimately traces her differences with Gould to personality. “He hated the color red,” she says, “I love red. He hated the day and sunshine, I love the sunshine. He hated everything sort of southern, like Italian opera. Well, I love Italy. I mean we’re just such opposite personalities it’s no wonder that in the end we play differently. But he set this wonderful standard of Bach playing and brought it to such a large audience that I admire him for that and for what he did for Bach.”