Bach Book at Wigmore Hall

2010-11-24 / The Times, London / Geoff Brown

Angela Hewitt at Wigmore Hall, London W1

Angela Hewitt cannot leave Bach alone. She’s pored over his entire keyboard repertoire for years, playing it live, recording it in the studio, everything dispatched with an elegant sparkle and beating heart. Now, following the pianist Harriet Cohen in the 1930s, she’s devised a “Bach Book” — a volume of new shortish pieces from contemporary composers invited to tread in Bach’s footsteps. Three of these novelties, commissioned by Wigmore Hall, emerged during her subtle and involving Saturday recital, played on Hewitt’s current instrument of choice for Bach: a Fazioli piano.

Faziolis tend to be cleaner, more nimble in tone than the redoubtable Steinways, though their horsepower is less and their “soul” sometimes hard to find. That was certainly so during Yehudi Wyner’s Fantasia on BACH, though the 81-year-old American composer added his own chill by constructing his piece from the motto formed from Bach’s name, plus its retrograde inversion. Sounds arid? It was, though Hewitt’s fingers found modest beauty in some of its twists and turns.

Brighter and happier Bachiana arrived with the Australian Brett Dean and his Prelude and Chorale. The first half was pure joy: a crazy cascade of figurations in the spirit of Bach’s exuberant early toccatas. Reverence took over for the chorale, a straight Bach transcription, nobly beautiful, but rather disappointing in context.

The meatiest contribution was Robin Holloway’s Partitina, abbreviated from a longer piece based on the opening bass notes from the theme of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Another desert? Not with the sprightly imagination of Britain’s best postmodern romantic. Holloway’s opening crunch of notes could have come from a film score by Bernard Herrmann; while the arietta movement emerged strikingly shy and hesitant, English to the core. Hewitt and this deliciously quizzical piece were perfectly matched.

Weaved around lay the real Bach, glorious and unfiltered. Sunshine radiated from Hewitt’s crisp dispatch of the English Suite No 4; steely power pervaded the C minor Toccata, BWV 911. Best of all, the three-part Inventions shook off the pedagogical corset to become shimmering delights of dancing colours, topped by pure, bleak tragedy. A classy night.