Edinburgh Festival August 2002

2002-08-17 / Glasgow Herald / Michael Tumelty

Goldberg Variations, Usher Hall

WELL, it happened. The Festival’s first sell-out concert in the new Royal Bank £5 series. The mechanics of how Friday night’s concert, with Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, actually got off the ground led to an extraordinary sense of pre-concert excitement in and around the Usher Hall.

The reason? Following its own rules for the new late-night series, the Festival had guaranteed tickets would be available to buy on the day and evening of the concert. So, even with advance sales promising the biggest attendance to date, the Festival held back 500 tickets for sale on the day.

It was like the opening of Harvey Nicks all over again, only more exciting because it was about art, not greed. Before 10pm crowds were milling around the outside of the hall while a huge queue extended from the box office out into the street. Inside, people dashed for seats (they are unreserved for this series). By 10.30, kick-off time, people were still streaming into the hall, and it was clear there was no way the event could start on time.

An announcement, 10 minutes later, explained the box office was overwhelmed, and thanked everyone for their patience. A senior usher said they were going to “do their damnedest” to get everyone in. They did. By this time the hubbub and atmosphere in the hall were electric.

The hush that spread throughout the vast crowd, as the renowned Canadian pianist and Bach specialist poetically unveiled the aria that is the subject of Bach’s monumental set of variations, was rapt. And that mood was sustained as, for the next hour, Hewitt wove spellbinding magic from the music, a masterly performance becoming, ultimately, a great account of a towering work.

The antithesis of the Glenn Gould style, Hewitt’s version was all about lyricism and expressiveness, with the variations delivered with the lightest touch. Fluidity was all in this account, which had tremendous emotional depth and concentration. What a pianist. What a performance. What a series. What an experience.