Recital in Davis, California

2009-03-04 / Sacramento Press / Makiko Yamashita

A cold and rainy Sunday afternoon seemed to brighten with the warm and transcendent music of Bach’s Goldberg Variations performed by Canadian virtuoso, Angela Hewitt.

As I found my seat, an hour before the performance, at the beautiful concert hall at the Mondavi Center in Davis, I saw Hewitt standing on the stage discussing the monumental work she was about to perform. Her lecture demonstrated a deep respect for the composition and skill in translating the complex structure of the piece to a lay audience.

Hewitt has played the Goldberg Variations thousands of times since age 16 and she is known worldwide for her performance and interpretation of Bach on the piano. Yet, she stressed she never became tired of it. Hearing about the background and character of this masterpiece from a pianist made the concert experience more interesting. It expanded our understanding of the music and composer. The Goldberg Variations consist of an aria and 30 variations. All variations except three are in major keys and most are based on dances from Bach’s time and therefore are playful and sometimes coquettish.

The aria contrasts this with its searching, perhaps transcendent, upward moving lines, weaving in counterpoint with the ground base. The piece was composed for a double manual harpsichord and requires superb skills and virtuosity to perform on the piano. With only a single keyboard the pianist must cross hands frequently. This creates a visual component of the hands weaving back and forth, and Hewitt performs with the flair of a dancer.

Bach provides limited instruction to the musician, such as the tempo and dynamics, leaving substantial freedom of interpretation to a pianist. One important decision a pianist has to make is whether or not to execute the repeats.

In Sunday’s concert, Hewitt included all repeats that made the entire piece 80-minute long compared with 35-minute long without repeats. Hewitt prefers including repeats because she finds “its impact immensely heightened, the architecture so much more evident, and the possibilities for variation within the variations endless,” she wrote on the program note.

An elegant sleeveless dress ensured that her arms would be free to move anywhere on the keyboard. The beautiful Aria, a gentle sarabande, was followed by variation 1. Hewitt played subsequent variations beautifully and powerfully. The Goldberg Variations showcase a pianist’s skills, technique and musicality.

The tempos raging from largo to presto and the extreme hand positions were handled by Hewitt’s flawless movement. The live concert sounded more dramatic and emotional than my recollection of her recording. Seeing the emotion expressed in her face and the physicality of her performance, perhaps influenced from her years as a ballet dancer, was a distinctive and poignant experience.

The movements that stood out were variations 25, 26, and the transition from the last variation to the Aria da Capo. The variation 25 is the last of three variations in minor keys. The expressive style harkens the romanticism heard in Chopin’s music.

The variation was sorrowful yet exquisite and lyrical, with a slow and tranquil tempo. It was as if there were human voices in the music.
With virtually no pause, she launched into the 26th technically demanding variation. It is extremely fast and requires complex overlapping of hands. As Hewitt explained before the concert, a pianist has to put oneself together in a few seconds after being spent emotionally in variation 25 to play the fast toccata, in variation 26, with precision and clarity.

The final variation (30) is in a form called the Quodlibet literally meaning “as you like,” where Bach used two humorous folksongs. Describing this playful variation, Hewitt wrote in her program note that “now the party is over, the crowd disperses, and the Aria returns, as if from afar.” Indeed, the Aria was magically brought back to us with utmost beauty.

When the final note of the Aria dissipated, I felt like I woke from a dream. Hewitt’s face showed a subtle combination of exhaustion and satisfaction. The audience was excited and there was an immediate standing ovation.

After playing for 80 minutes without a break Hewitt returned for a short Q&A with the audience. When asked what was going through her mind while playing such a long and demanding piece, she jokingly said she was tired and hungry by the 26th variation. She added that the needed strength and stamina come not only from discipline, practice, will power and experience but also from occasional massages and making use of the limited free time in her packed schedule.

It was a luxury to have a world class pianist not only perform a work she knows so well, but give the audience a snapshot of her internal dialogue and thoughts on the music.

These discoveries made my concert experience so rich and exciting that I kept listening to recordings of the Goldberg Variations on iTunes and YouTube for the rest of the afternoon.