Bach at Carnegie Hall, New York

2007-10-30 / New York Times / Bernard Holland

It’s a Whole Lot of Bach, but Pianist Is Unfazed

Angela Hewitt is traveling the world this season bearing great armfuls of Bach, gifts to be bestowed on places as distant as Macao, Colombia and South Africa. Both books of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” are the subject matter: 48 preludes and fugues that twice visit all the major and minor keys, from C to B minor. Ms. Hewitt, a Canadian, was at Zankel Hall over the weekend, with Book 1 on Friday night and Book 2 on Sunday afternoon.

It is a lot of music, in almost every conceivable meaning of “a lot.” Bach, first of all, is offering promotional material for a system of tuning favored by him and not far from the equal temperament we use today. Beyond practicality, the preludes and fugues are wonders of counterpoint, though often so contemptuous of generally accepted rules of agreement between notes that they serve poorly as models for conservatory study.

With equal iconoclasm, Bach’s oddly spaced melodic intervals and adventures in dissonant harmony seem to us almost post-Webernian, with a space-age quality galaxies away from the sober 18th-century German-ness from which they came. (See especially the D sharp minor Fugue from Book 2.) The “Well-Tempered Clavier” is, more important, an encyclopedia of the heart, every shade of extroversion, privacy, happiness and desolation thoroughly described.

“A lot” also extends to sheer volume. Get past the question of whether these pieces are more suitable for private study than for public performance, although the question is real. How do we present them, if we do? Excerpts are somehow unsatisfying. Dividing the whole into two events, as Ms. Hewitt does, results in two afternoons approaching five hours total. So exquisite is her musicality and so unflagging her attention span that the extra time is hardly begrudged. There is simply too much happening too relentlessly at one sitting to let us properly sort this great music out.

Friday and Sunday came uncomfortably close to a marathon, both for her and for us. Ms. Hewitt played Book 1 from memory (with only one noticeable disconnect) and Book 2 with the music. Quality has nothing to do with the use or nonuse of a score, and her special kind of virtuosity — the ability to animate inner conversation and raise or lower the tone of the voices involved — did not desert her. But the pressure of such a large undertaking was felt at every moment.

Book 1, from 1722, remains the more extroverted of the two; its little dramas seem to know that beyond the player and the music, someone else is listening. In Book 2, assembled some 20 years later, Bach shuts the door and communes with himself. These later preludes and fugues are no less human, but most are more private. Perhaps, too, they are an adumbration of the catalog Bach was to create at the end of his life: the summings-up of gathered skills that included the B minor Mass and the “Art of Fugue.”

Stravinsky, who composed at the piano, began every morning by playing one of the preludes and fugues for his own instruction. The “Well-Tempered Clavier” was Schumann’s daily bread. In one form or another Bach gets our musical motors running, whether we be fumbling students or great musical minds. Ms. Hewitt, one hopes tirelessly, will be reminding the world of that in the year to come.