Bach Book at Wigmore Hall

2010-11-25 / The Financial Times / Richard Fairman

There seems no end to the desire to reinvent Bach’s music. From Mendelssohn’s version of the St Matthew Passion and organ works turned into orchestral showpieces by Elgar and Leopold Stokowski, to the jazz reinventions of Jacques Loussier and 1960s bop-bopping of the Swingle Singers, every generation has sought to clothe Bach in its own fashions.

Now pianist Angela Hewitt, a Bach specialist, has gone one better. As well as searching out forgotten Bach arrangements she has commissioned six contemporary composers, with help from Wigmore Hall, to write pieces “somehow inspired by Bach”. The only other stipulation was that they should not be too long, so all six could be threaded through a pair of Bach recitals over the past week.

What kind of inspiration should it be? To get everybody in the mood, Hewitt started with the flamboyant roulades of Bach’s own Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, where he seems to be challenging later composers to outdo him. Taking up where the master left off, Kurt Schwertsik’s Fantasia and Fuga Op 105 operated in the style of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, tapping into Bach’s exuberance and getting the fugue to bowl along, even if it came to an end where Bach might have delivered his clinching statement.

The two other contemporary composers in Tuesday’s recital interpreted Hewitt’s invitation more liberally. The best new piece was Dominic Muldowney’s Fantasia on BACH, which played with Bach’s favourite forms as it jumped from chorale and fugue to a two-part invention, mixing humour and scholarship with a light touch. Elena Kats-Chernin took a more straightforward line in her Bach Study, a homage to his G Major Cello Suite, but the moto perpetuo that she set in motion ran out of steam in an unsatisfying way.

In each of them Hewitt was the thoughtful guide. While her Bach avoids the extremes of imagination of a Glenn Gould or the intellectual rigour of Tatiana Nikolayeva, she has a fluency that shows how beautifully Bach’s keyboard works can be played on the modern piano. A group of three-part inventions and the A Minor Prelude and Fugue BWV 894 were nicely characterful in Hewitt’s unexaggerated way. The three encores were well deserved.