Bach in Denver

2007-10-01 / Denver Post / Kyle MacMillan

Pianist lives up to global billing

Friends of Chamber Music was smart to book Angela Hewitt’s Well-Tempered Clavier,” a monumental performance.

Denver often has to look on from afar as major classical-music undertakings happen in New York City or elsewhere. But not this time.

To its enormous credit, the Friends of Chamber Music was among the first groups to sign on when Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt announced her intention to perform “The Well-Tempered Clavier” in venues around the world.

Hewitt’s Denver presentation is part of what became a 14-month international tour, during which she will present the work in about 40 cities. Before coming to Colorado, the pianist was in Bogota, Colombia, for performances there.

Outside the period-instrument and organ worlds, Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard works are not frequently heard. “The Well-Tempered Clavier” is even rarer because of the sheer monumentality of the work, which requires considerable endurance on the part of both the player and audience.

The piece, which lasts about 4 1/2 hours in total, consists of two sets or books of 24 preludes and fugues dated 1722 and 1744, respectively. Hewitt offered an intense, all-engaging performance of the first book Sunday afternoon in Gates Concert Hall as part of the Friends’ new piano series, and she returns Wednesday to complete the work during an already sold-out concert.

Few pianists are more suited to this musical challenge than Hewitt. Bach has been part of her life since childhood, and her instinctive connectedness with the composer and long experience with his music can be felt in every bar.

Of course, she possesses superb technique and a sensitive touch. But she brings so much more to her playing, including an inner propulsiveness and an honest, unforced style.

Hewitt uncovered and artfully conveyed the essence of each of the sets of preludes and fugues, investing them with weight and substance and achieving no shortage of “wow” moments.

Among them was her mournful, almost haunting take on the C sharp minor fugue. It slowly built in power, which seemed to inexorably well up from inside.

And for sheer virtuosity, it was hard to top the flurry of flying fingers in the G major prelude, which turned into a dense, intertwined fugue.”