Bach English Suites

2003-10-07 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Todd

The Divine Angela Hewitt

With the release of the English Suites, Angela Hewitt has completed her project of recording all of Bach’s major solo keyboard works. (One CD of miscellaneous short pieces is yet to come.) The project was ambitious, and the resulting set of about a dozen CDs is among the most distinguished achievements in the history of recording.

Hewitt’s way with Bach has become legendary. Gramophone magazine has called her “the Bach pianist for our time,” and other publications around the world (including the Citizen) have echoed those sentiments, sometimes with the same words. The list of awards she’s won is staggering.

As with every release in the series, Hewitt builds upon past strength. The English Suites are perhaps not as subtle or profound as the Well-Tempered Clavier or the Goldberg Variations, but they are more immediately likeable. This, combined with the serene mastery of the playing, makes them an ideal point of entry for listeners who generally like piano music, but haven’t quite warmed up to Bach.

Serenity can mean different things, of course. One could scarcely call the music serene in the sense of being placid or unemotional. The English Suites embrace a tremendous range of emotions, wider than that of the French Suites or even the Partitas, and Hewitt is able to discover, develop and convey them like no one else.

It isn’t that she takes liberties with the core. Her interpretive gestures are moderate and almost always subtle: a little rubato here, a hint of a flourish there. She doesn’t so much underscore the major gestures of the writing as integrate them into a flow of music in which every note is of importance.

A good example of this is the first Gavotte of the Suite in G minor, BWV 808, in which there is persistent, rhythmic use of trills. Some pianists, and harpsichordists for that matter, emphasize the trills to the point of caricature. Others play them apologetically, as though they were unworthy of the music’s gravity. Hewitt does neither. In her playing they are at once functional and ornamental. They make perfect sense.

The vigour of the fast movements is complemented by the poise and tenderness heard in some slow movements, most typically the allemands and the variously passionate and meditative qualities of the sarabandes.

As usual in this series, the recorded piano sound is a joy in itself. And Hewitt’s explanatory notes are as intelligent and informative as ever. Her Ottawa fans can hear her in a different mode Oct. 22-23, when she performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major with the NACO and guest conductor Raymond Leppard.