Bach in Toronto

2007-10-25 / Globe and Mail / Tamara Bernstein

Hewitt mines mystery of Bach masterpiece


As Angela Hewitt tours the world performing J.S. Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier, she is probably going to get tired of reading the phrase musical marathon” in reviews. But it must be said that, apart from all the musical treasures that Hewitt revealed in the first instalment of her Toronto cycle, the sheer concentration required to perform, by memory, 48 of the most sophisticated preludes and fugues ever written over two long concerts is a marvel.

I was pleasantly exhausted just listening to Hewitt’s performance of Book I, which captivated a near-capacity crowd at the Glenn Gould Studio. (She performed Book II last night.) Is there any work, ostensibly written for students, more full of mysteries than the WTC? It’s still not clear what the composer meant by “Clavier,” which in German simply means “keyboard instrument”; in Bach’s time, that meant harpsichord, organ, clavichord, or even the early fortepiano. According to eminent Canadian organist Réjean Poirier, “To date, no one has really solved the mystery surrounding the harpsichord for which Bach conceived his music.”

And don’t get a musicologist started on the meaning of “well-tempered”! People used to assume that Bach was referring to the bland (to an 18th-century sensibility) system of keyboard tuning used today, which makes each tonality sound essentially the same. But in 2004, in classical music’s answer to The Da Vinci Code, U.S. harpsichordist-musicologist Bradley Lehman claimed that Bach encoded the tuning system he had in mind in doodle-like decorations on the title page of his own copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

But the greatest Mysteries of the Well-Tempered Clavier – the ones that make it possible to be swept up by performances on the “wrong” instrument (a modern piano) tuned in modern temperament – are those of its imaginative, poetic world. The musical language of these pieces is no different from those of Bach’s sacred cantatas and Passions: With a little imagination – and the right performer – you can hear singers, orchestral instruments and intense drama in these extraordinary miniatures. Clearly, one of Bach’s messages in these “teaching” pieces is that even the most humble formal vessel can be filled to the bursting point with spirit.

Hewitt has always performed this music with admirable clarity. But over the years, she has dropped the preachy tone that I used to hear in her Bach interpretations. Her performance Monday was a shared revelation of humanity from a mature artist.

Hewitt gave the joyous Prelude in C-Sharp Major a sweetness that took no happiness for granted, yet steered clear of romantic nostalgia. The murmuring E-Minor Prelude sought consolation like a wandering soul; the long notes of the C-sharp minor fugue’s theme hesitated with heartbreaking poignancy. All of the magisterial minor-mode fugues unfolded like great choral fugues meditating on life’s deepest mysteries.

Hewitt’s performances worked on modern piano in part because she made you hear “core musical values”: harmonic and/or metric instability that sometimes approach hysteria (the E-Minor Fugue); places where Bach bursts out of the form (the E-flat Major Prelude, which decides to become a fugue.) I also loved the way the F-sharp Major Prelude slipped in and out of the sublime as only a childlike soul can do.”