Recital in Carnegie Hall

2005-04-11 / New York Times / Bernard Holland

Dispelling Contradictions Between Passion and Order

Calling Angela Hewitt a Bach specialist is an unfortunate compliment, squeezing assets of considerable breadth into confines a bit too small to hold them. Bach does bring out the best in this splendid Canadian pianist. She has the technical ability to describe multiple intricacies with stunning clarity. Presiding over the athleticism, however, is a lovely sense of proportion and – what would seem a contradiction – a free-spirited love of theater.

Ms. Hewitt’s gift to Bach – and to her audience at Zankel Hall on Thursday night – was to reassure us that logic can be humane and that order and the passions are not mutually exclusive. In the first half of her recital were the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” and the mightiest of Bach’s keyboard suites, the “French Overture.” After intermission the music was French in more than name: Couperin’s “Treizième Ordre” and Ravel’s fanciful, sometimes souped-up reflection on the French Baroque, “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

A quasi-improvisation to begin with, the “Chromatic Fantasy” invites the kind of surges, caesuras and eccentric punctuation that Ms. Hewitt discovers in it. The powerful fugue attached describes the world that preceded Beethoven: not a journey of discovery but something stationary that grows outward in every direction. Bach was also our great summarizer, and the “French Overture” represents his best thoughts on the dance rhythms that fueled secular music of the 17th and early 18th centuries.

“Le Tombeau” is known best, unfortunately, for its abridged and orchestrated version. The authentic article in six movements goes back and forth between inspired nostalgia, sedate good manners and vicious tests of virtuosity. The Toccata finale, like “Scarbo” or “Alborada del Gracioso,” is like a prank played on the most accomplished of techniques. Before “Le Tombeau” on the program was Couperin representing himself, in his series of wistful, elegant vignettes. They were played with a lovely modesty.

What separated Couperin, whom Bach admired, from Bach himself was more than transparency over deep density, it was Couperin’s orderliness of movement, his reverence for pure symmetry. Bach’s reputation for symmetry is undeserved. In fact, it is the abrupt truncations and the disruption of patterns that give his music so much of its life. Thank you, Ms. Hewitt. A wonderful evening.”