Bach at the Royal Festival Hall, London

2008-01-22 / The Guardian / Martin Kettle

Angela Hewitt
Royal Festival Hall
January 20, 2008

Not many artists could be confident of filling the Festival Hall for Book One of The Well-Tempered Klavier, and then do it again, with Book Two to follow in May. But Angela Hewitt can. It is not hard to work out why she is so many people’s Bach player of choice these days. Her playing is neither too rhetorical nor too austere. She balances intellectual clarity with expressive imagination. And, with the crystalline sound of her preferred Fazioli piano, she conjures a bright palette of sounds that can hold an audience’s attention for an evening of music that lasts more than two hours.

Hewitt’s account of the opening 24 preludes and fugues of the 48 was anything but conventional. The absence of detailed markings in Bach’s scores allows his players much leeway over tempo, weight and balance, which Hewitt was not afraid to exploit. The first two preludes – and, in particular, the first two fugues – were marked by surprisingly Romantic tempo and dynamic changes. There were fewer surprises of this kind later on, but overall, in the concert hall, Hewitt’s Bach is much more spontaneous and personal than recordings might suggest.

Yet her grasp rarely falters, in small things as in the larger architecture. Early on, the C sharp minor fugue stood out for the way its complexities were drawn together in a harrowingly intense close. There were further wonderful examples of this mastery in the shift from the imposing intricacy of the inexorable A minor fugue to the dazzlingly nimble fingering of the B flat major prelude. It added up to a vast keyboard lesson, just as Bach intended.

Indeed, with Hewitt performing the Bach 48 and Daniel Barenboim starting the Beethoven 32 shortly, Southbank recital audiences can hear what the Victorians called the piano’s Old and New Testaments back-to-back this spring. If Barenboim matches up to Hewitt’s achievement, it will be a musical experience of the highest order.