Recital at Miller Theater, New York

2005-11-07 / New York Times / Anne Midgette

Bach Preludes and Fugues From Tragedy to Joy

Think, improbably, Edward Gorey. The visuals were black-and-white: a slender woman in a black dress trailing scarflike bits, hair in a pompadour, with lidded eyes and white arms and a black concert grand all highlighted against a blood-red backdrop on the Miller Theater’s small stage. And while the music was Bach, the playing was so expressive as to be veritably Gothic, so that one had a Gorey-like sense of fragments of quirky anecdote linked together in a collage across a broad canvas.

Angela Hewitt, the pianist, offered the complete Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier on Saturday night. Offered is perhaps the wrong word: she cajoled, flirted with, wrested expression from and, ultimately, firmly led the way through the 24 preludes and fugues in an engaging and entertaining performance.

You could argue that if you’re going to present these works as a cycle you need this degree of characterization. The C-sharp minor prelude and fugue, no. 4, was a grim Victorian tragedy. No. 15, in G major, had a joyful lilt that brought a fresh girlish smile to the face of the performer. This certainly wasn’t sober, early-music Bach, though the piano, a Fazioli, brought a degree of tinny brightness to the sound that slightly evoked the plinking of a fortepiano. There was so much rubato it sometimes made the playing sound halting; the entrance of separate voices in a fugue, like No. 6 in D minor, was set off from the rest of the music on a tiny cushion of silence.

For all of Ms. Hewitt’s technical accomplishment, the performance evinced a distinctly human touch rather than the cool glitter of virtuosity. In the lengthy and interesting program notes, which explained some of her interpretive choices, Ms. Hewitt wrote of the need to make the music sound easy; but she didn’t, always, and that was part of its appeal. Characterization was a main focus, and how can it be easy to give distinct character to the four or five different voices of a fugue when they are all talking at once? They bumped up against one another now and then, as characters will. It says much for Ms. Hewitt that the audience was drawn in to every wrinkle of the debate.