Bach in Toronto

2007-10-23 / Toronto Star / John Terauds

Concert proves pianist Angela Hewitt truly a Bach visionary

Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach.
Book II tomorrow night (sold-out) at the Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St. W. 416-205-5555

I felt sorry for the piano teachers seated near me who scribbled furiously in their scores as pianist Angela Hewitt played Book I of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Those 24 Preludes and Fugues from the early 1720s were the first complete attempt by a composer to write music for all 12 major and minor keys.

These pieces, which originally would have been played on a harpsichord, contain all the building blocks of modern Western music.

Yet Bach left us with no instructions on how they should be played – loud, soft, fast or slow.

So finding the right” interpretation has been a Holy Grail of classical music. People follow their favourite pianist (or harpsichordist) as they would a knight in armour.

Ottawa-born Hewitt, an international musical force long removed from our shores, is on a world tour to promote her vision of these 24 pieces, as well as 24 more Bach wrote for a second collection 20 years later.

It’s a massive, two-night effort that is the ideal platform for Hewitt’s prodigious talents.

The talent this exercise highlights most vividly is how an artist’s force of will can shape a performance so strongly that it becomes impossible to disagree with it – even though one might want to.

Here, in two hours of keyboard gymnastics, is as eloquent an expression as one is ever likely to hear for the power of a spontaneous, live performance of music that the artist has spent years shaping and perfecting.

This is not about right and wrong ways of playing Bach. It’s about moving the listener with sheer craft – clear subjects, phrases and rhythms shaped into clean musical-narrative arcs.

The resulting sound lies between the Romantic excess of late-19th century virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni and the spare modernism of the late Rosalyn Tureck.

In other words, Hewitt sheathes fingers of steel in velvet gloves.

There is no way of replicating this by writing instructions down on a piece of paper.”