Bach in Ottawa

2008-05-11 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Todd

Pianist Hewitt played Bach to perfection

There’s always a tendency to explain away an Ottawa-born artist’s popularity in her home town, especially when it’s someone like Angela Hewitt, whom some Ottawans still remember as a child prodigy. We might be tempted to dismiss her as a sentimental favourite.

But if anything, she is more highly esteemed in Europe, for her Bach playing especially, than she is here.

This year she turns 50 and, prodigious though her talent remains, the little-girl appeal is but a memory. Yesterday afternoon at St. Andrew’s she played Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. She recorded both books about a decade ago and performed them not long after at the National Arts Centre.

St. Andrew’s was an unfortunate venue if only because far more people could have heard her had a bigger suitable space been available. It wasn’t, and tickets for this concert and Tuesday evening’s performance of Book II sold out the day after they went on sale.

Those who were able to attend heard an account of the 24 preludes and fugues that make up Book I that has evolved considerably since her rendition at the NAC. She allows herself more rhythmic and expressive freedom now or, to put it another way, her understanding and musical maturity compell her to take liberties with rhythm, dynamics and phrasing that would be disastrous in the hands of most pianists.

There were a few surprises early on, expressive gestures that were hard to process, for this listener at least. The C-sharp minor fugue verged on being too theatrical and didn’t compare terribly well with her recording of it. After that, though, things were as close to perfect as anyone could hope for.

She was playing her preferred instrument, a Fazioli and the things she did with it were extraordinary. The strong, sustained bass sound of which this piano is capable enabled her to make the left-hand lines uncommonly melodic, resulting in a greater clarity of counterpoint and a wider gamut of emotional expression.

In a program of 24 preludes and 24 fugues, it is hard to choose a handful of highlights, but here are a few: Every fourth fugue was particularly profound and momentous. Bach arranged things so that each of them is followed by a cheerful prelude, except for the last, which concludes Book I in the grandest style. And Hewitt played that one, as almost everything else, to perfection.