Bach with the Australian Chamber Orchestra

2005-02-14 / The Age, Melbourne / Clive O’Connell

Australian Chamber Orchestra. Richard Tognetti, artistic director and lead violin Angela Hewitt, piano.
Hamer Hall, February 13.

Angela Hewitt was last in Melbourne in 2003. Then, as now, she was taking part in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s annual subscription series. Not surprisingly, she introduced herself through Bach: Johann Sebastian, of course, but also his sons, Johann Christoph Friedrich, Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emmanuel.

In a display of considerable versatility, Hewitt took on the position of director, leading several works from the harpsichord, then switching to the piano for the music that everyone had come to hear: two keyboard concertos by the senior Bach. The performances breathed a freshness into works that are often hammered out with not much interest given to the springy, ebullient lyricism that brings an extraordinary lightness to their emotional language.

Hewitt’s choice of the piano as her instrument for interpreting these concertos – and for recording all of J. S. Bach’s keyboard works – is at odds with the contemporary penchant for close-to-original sounds at all costs, as promulgated by those who take issue with every stray vibrato or abrupt changes of dynamic level.

In Hewitt’s hands, there is nothing of this often sterile preciousness. More importantly, the 19th century-derived stodgy, bully-beef approach to Bach is nowhere to be found, either.

Yesterday she played two of the more popular Bach concertos: the A Major BWV 1055 and the D minor, which is the longest as well as the most dour and trenchant.

Hewitt made an unexpectedly mobile creature of the A Major work, emphasising its good spirits and happy nature, fusing her distinctive elegance of touch with an infectious, subtle humour. With this artist, everything counts, even the slight ornaments in tutti passages where the keyboard plays in unison with the string orchestra. In the powerful D minor concerto, ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti provided a dynamically varied envelope to which Hewitt responded with a reading that surprised by its vitality.

She returned in the concert’s second half to take on the equally taxing keyboard line for the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Tognetti playing the solo violin with his usual confident mastery and Alison Mitchell providing a gentle-voiced flute line. This reading impressed as something of a hybrid, with Linda Kent’s harpsichord emerging prominently in the full-orchestra passages, cutting out as Hewitt entered for each keyboard solo.

Tognetti and his players began the afternoon with a short piece of early program music, Biber’s Battalia. To some extent, this prefatory exercise set a sort of Baroque background for Hewitt’s contributions.

Tognetti also interpolated two contemporary pieces: Passion by Errki-Sven Tuur, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round. The Tuur piece operates on the layer principle where various strata merge and the music swells by a sort of osmosis. Its content makes few demands on the listener and the ACO handled its demands with equanimity.

By contrast, Last Round splits the orchestra’s forces and pits them against each other in an antiphonal tango that is very exciting, particularly for its climactic moments. But you are left with little to hang on to at its conclusion. In this sense, and after the large-scale Brandenburg concerto, it impressed as little more than a programmed encore.

This concert will be repeated tonight at 8.