Bach in Melbourne

2008-10-22 / The Age, Melbourne / Clive O’Connell

Marathon performance for both pianist and audience

Bach expert Angela Hewitt is nearing the end of her self-imposed undertaking to play both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier in about 40 cities worldwide throughout 2007-2008.

She has recorded the famous pedagogical collection of 48 preludes and fugues twice but nothing prepares you for the music’s immediacy in her live performance.

Hewitt has no trouble utilizing the potentialities of the grand piano, including massive washes of sound, pounding out fugal statements and responses with percussive insistence, picking themes and counter-subjects out in alto and tenor lines, with liberal emphasis.

While a harpsichordist can generate tension through simple aggregations of parts in both preludes and fugues, Hewitt enjoys the versatility made available through her instruments’ potential for massive crescendos and abrupt alternations in dynamic. Over last weekend, it all made for a gripping, if long, experience.

Both Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening’s accounting for the Clavier’s two books were played to full audiences. Those who opted only for the first enjoyed the less challenging, more easygoing sequence.

To many pianists, much of Book I is familiar territory, but Hewitt put many of these pages under unfamiliar and strikingly aggressive lights.

Among some extraordinary readings was the A minor fugue: a surging polyphonic mesh delivered with breathtaking ardour but rich in pointed details. With the second book, the riches were more common: the absolute rigour of the F minor fugue, an infectious bounce permeating the B flat major prelude, and an emotional gamut that seemed to widen with each new key.

At the end, you were left in awe at the pianist’s command of this multi-faceted material—Book I was accomplished from memory, the score in Book 2 served merely as an aide-memoire—and her ability to shape the various sections’ individuality; so much so that often you seemed to be listening to a colossal suite, albeit one with an excessive amount of fugal writing.

A marathon for performer and audience, maybe, but anyone listening to Hewitt’s Clavier readings will never again look at this well-thumbed collection with indifference.