Bach: The English Suites

2003-03-10 / Radio 3 / Andrew McGregor

JS Bach: English Suites

“a profound pleasure”

These Bach Suites are about as English as…Angela Hewitt, who follows in fellow Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s footsteps as a revered performer of Bach’s keyboard music, while sounding absolutely nothing like him. The English Suites seem to have got the name because Bach intended them for ‘an Englishman of rank’ as an early biographer put it. The First Suite is positively French in style, while the others are more Italianate…if you’ve ever shuddered at the extremes of expression, interpretation, tempi and noises-off in Gould’s Bach, then Hewitt should be a profound pleasure.

This is playing of such clarity and intelligence that you’re encouraged to follow every strand of Bach’s counterpoint, and in contrast to performers who make Bach feel brow-knittingly complicated, there’s a luminous simplicity about Hewitt’s playing. Gould fans (and I have my moments) shouldn’t find this emotionally pallid either; with Hewitt the expressive nuances and dynamic contrasts don’t feel as though they’re superimposed. Instead you’re drawn into her world, and Bach’s, where you’re never yelled at or forced to be impressed.

That’s not to say that there isn’t effervescent, energetic playing – there’s plenty, but while brisk tempi are allowed, there’s no rush, which gives Hewitt time to let every voice speak, and for her ornamentation to be impeccably delivered. Her early training in classical ballet seems to have paid off as well: she never forgets the origins of Bach’s movements in dance numbers, and they step lightly and elegantly, with no vulgar whirling or posturing. The two famous Gavottes from the Third Suite are a perfect example, poised and clearly voiced, with the detached brilliance of the first Gavotte in complete contrast to the finger-legato of the second, so there’s no need to change the tempo.

Some listeners may feel that Hewitt’s English Suites are under-characterised, but she never needs to shout to make her point. Her booklet notes are as clear and engaging as her playing, and on the pair of hybrid CD/SACDs to which I’ve been listening, the recorded sound matches the musical qualities on show; crystal clear and pleasantly resonant. Everything just so, nothing out of place, no extremes… and no it’s not boring, it’s beautiful. Angela Hewitt’s Bach is also bang on schedule: just one more volume to come in 2004, ten years after the series began. I’ll be waiting in line: it’s been a consistently fascinating journey