Bach in Vancouver

2007-10-15 / Vancouver Sun / David Gordon Duke

Hewitt serves up sparkling Bach performance

In recent seasons it’s become something of a Vancouver Recital Society tradition to tackle big projects: major Schubert song-cycles, the Shostakovich string quartets, even a multi-year survey of all the Beethoven piano sonatas.

There’s nothing quite that grand this season. Even so, the VRS Chan Centre concerts began Sunday afternoon with the first of two recitals devoted to a complete performance of one of the landmarks of the keyboard repertoire: J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, performed by Angela Hewitt.

Hewitt is one of those keyboard players – Richard Goode and Murray Perahia are others – currently reclaiming the works of Bach for modern piano. This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of playing 18th century music on far more recent instruments. Certainly none but the most pedantic of listeners would quibble about the effectiveness and impact of Hewitt’s achievement.

Employing a sleek, mellow Fazioli grand, Hewitt’s way with Bach may well be controversial, but it is neither naive nor unconsidered. At first one feels her approach might show more emotional strength than intellectual insight. But over the course of some two hours of complex and profoundly cerebral music, Hewitt was consistently, if subtly, sensitive to detail. Though all the twenty-four pairs of preludes and fugues reflect similar stereotypical structures, the extraordinary diversity of Bach’s work makes each a concentrated essay in the particular nature of every major and minor key. Hewitt goes to the emotional core of each segment, revealing its special character while defining its integral part in the greater whole.

Hewitt has a particular affinity for Bach’s gallantry, his wit and his sparkle; her B flat major prelude was more effervescent than a case of champagne. This is not to undervalue her conception of Bach’s great dramatic set-pieces. Hewitt’s C sharp minor fugue was conceived on a grandly epic scale; and the concluding B minor fugue, with its labyrinths of chromatic counterpoint, had a touching delicacy and vulnerability which made its final, hard-won resolution all the more powerful.

Angela Hewitt returns to the Chan Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. to perform the second book of the Well Tempered Clavier.