Bach DVD on Hyperion

2008-05-10 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Todd

How to play Bach to perfection

Lecture and concert DVDs illuminate Angela Hewitt’s mastery

So that’s how she does it.

Pianist and Ottawa native Angela Hewitt has a way with Bach, to put it mildly. Her new two-DVD set, Bach Performance on the Piano, consists of a 150-minute illustrated lecture on the challenges and opportunities the piano presents in the interpretation of baroque music in general, and that of J.S. Bach in particular. The second disc has a recital in which she demonstrates where her studies have brought her.

Hewitt is widely considered the greatest Bach pianist of our time and possibly of any time. Not everyone agrees. There are those who don’t like to hear Bach on the piano, preferring the composer’s original instrument, the harpsichord. Then there are those who don’t care for her interpretations. That’s their prerogative, of course, but they are in the minority.

As part of the Celebridée festival, Hewitt will present Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier at St. Andrew’s Church, Book I this afternoon and Book II on Tuesday. Both performances are sold out. Music lovers without tickets may find some consolation in these beautifully filmed and recorded DVDs. Hyperion’s engineers seem to have achieved the gold standard of piano sound in recent years, and they maintain it beautifully here.

The piano in question was a Fazioli, Hewitt’s instrument of choice and, arguably, the best made today. The recital was filmed in the Fazioli performance space and the demonstration was given in the company’s factory.

The lecture is aimed first of all at pianists aspiring to perfect their Bach. It turns out to be surprisingly simple. If you study assiduously the hundreds of examples Hewitt provides and the principles she enunciates, then practise most of the day for 40 years or so, you’ll be all set. Well, talent might be helpful too, and if you had a father who was a distinguished Bach organist, as did Hewitt, that wouldn’t hurt either.

It’s possible that some pianists will throw their hands up in despair. Shortly after watching the lecture for the first time, I mentioned the DVDs in an e-mail to an excellent pianist I know and remarked that it made me wish I played the piano. Her reply was that it made her too wish she played the piano. Later she wrote that she would like to turn back the clock to her youth and practise eight hours a day. (She didn’t leave the impression that she’d be abandoning the instrument any time soon, however.)

So what are some of the ideas Hewitt shares? One example may suffice: Suppose you have a two-voice phrase that rises and falls more or less symmetrically. Why not emphasize the upper voice on the way up and the lower on the way down? Then, when it comes to the repeat, do the same thing, but reversing the emphases.

See how easy it is? Just imagine the possibilities with a four- or five-voice fugue.

But you don’t have to be a pianist to profit from the lecture. Anyone with a little musical literacy will find it fascinating, if not exactly light entertainment. As for the recital, it is perfectly wonderful. It includes Bach’s Partita No. 4, the Italian Concerto and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.

While the playing is unfailingly inspired, certain movements of the Partita, especially the Allemande and the Sarabande, would by themselves be worth the price of the set, which is $35. Their wisdom and grace cannot really be described; rather, they prove the old adage that music is an essential part of the human experience that says things that cannot be said in any other way. Hewitt makes her piano say them better than just about anyone.

Angela Hewitt’s performances of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at St. Andrew’s Church today and Tuesday as part of the Celebridée festival are sold out.