The Complete Solo Bach Recordings on Hyperion

2010-08-31 / Musicweb-international / Dominy Clements

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Works
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Recorded 1994-2008
See below for full track-listings.
HYPERION CDS44421/35 [15 CDs]


This is a magnificent retrospective of Angela Hewitt’s achievement as a pianist in the keyboard works of J.S. Bach. As a project which was initiated a little before MusicWeb International’s classical pages took to the air but which has been covered extensively by numerous reviewers here over the years, the completion and bringing together of this remarkable set of recordings marks something of a milestone for everyone involved with classical music, as well as for Hyperion.

The booklet for this set abandons the more detailed texts on Bach’s music which the original releases had, and instead has an extended and fascinating history of the entire project written by Angela Hewitt. This might seem like an indulgence, but in fact provides some remarkably rich and insightful detail, creating a kind of third dimension to recordings which you might have known and loved for years, perhaps without quite being able to put your finger on why. So much that is special about a unique and valuable musical moment depends on an intangible coalescence of rare circumstances, and it is Hewitt’s descriptions of these occasions which allow us a greater understanding of the whys and wherefores of what has become “one of the recorded glories of our age”. Anyone wanting to refer to the original booklets for this series of recordings can do so from the Hyperion website, which has the documentation for each recording available for download as a pdf file.

The CDs here are not in order of recording date, but present a logical progression of Bach’s keyboard works, with the edges of each cardboard sleeve usefully differentiated by colour, so you can tell your WTC from your Suites at a glance. We do begin with the earliest recorded of the set, with CD 1 recorded in a relatively dry sounding Beethovensaal. Listening to Hewitt’s Two Part Inventions made me fetch out my Till Fellner favourite of these pieces. Hewitt’s lyrical playing and rhythmic bounce are all well in evidence in these more sparing of Bach’s pieces, but with Fellner’s playing having a more resonant acoustic and an even more languid legato his wins in terms of romantic sheen, Hewitt’s piano sounding almost imperious at times in comparison. This approach does have the advantage of providing a more sparkling vitality to the music, and there is certainly nothing fatiguing about the Hyperion recording. In absolute terms I suppose I would choose Fellner in the end, but after all we’re only just starting on what is a pretty long voyage. The Three-Part Sinfonias with their added layer of contrapuntal richness are equally vibrant under Hewitt’s fingers, and her trademark sensitivity to voicing, contrasting closely intertwining lines of melody and accompaniment, generate plenty of colour and character. Taking the Sinfonia No.5 in E flat major as just one rather special example, the conversation between leading treble voice and subservient harmonising middle line is full of gentle delights. Hewitt’s articulation here is quite separated, but while comparisons with Glenn Gould might seem tempting she has more than once made her conscious decision not to allow him to become an influential factor in her playing quite clear. The wonderfully even legato lines of the following Sinfonia No.6 in E major are proof of Hewitt’s frequent adherence to a wise general rule of thumb: notes close together = legato, wider leaps = separated. The first movement of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor plunges us into even further and more dramatic depths. In the booklet Hewitt describes how she developed a pattern during the recording sessions of listening to two initial takes of a complete work, then playing a third version more as a ‘live’ performance, with the sound engineer and producer sitting and listening in the hall to act as audience. Whatever comparisons one might make with other recordings, this is an aspect of Angela Hewitt’s playing which provides some insight into how she makes everything sound enticingly spontaneous and communicative, and this is a very appealing BWV 903 indeed.

The next two discs cover the compete English Suites, made in later sessions in the more open sounding Henry Wood Hall in London. Eight or so years later and Hewitt herself sounds a bit more open, and more inclined to allow more expressive range in terms of some restrained flexibility with inner tempi and phrasing. Interestingly, these recordings are done on a very nice Steinway piano, and though Angela Hewitt ultimately favours a Fazioli instrument it is Andrea Bacchetti whose recording of these pieces has that honour. It is the player not the instrument which makes a good performance, and I like both of these – the English Suites having a quality of bringing out the lyrical touch in most good Bach pianists. Bacchetti is more extreme in the potential for more spiky playing in the Courante dances, but Hewitt’s touch in the ornamentation tends to be lighter, the melodic lines sometimes equally challenged by peripheral material but never losing sight of the harmonic flow and rhythm of each movement. The core of each of the Suites is the Sarabande, and it is here that Hewitt really makes the difference. There is a way in which she can bring out something extra from inside, tapping into emotions to which we can all relate in some way or another. For one, this makes me almost forget that I’m listening to a piano. There is plenty of magic and driving, dancing rhythm in the quicker movements as well, and the booklet notes have us all leaping ahead to the final Gigue of the English Suite No.6, for which we are told is a real ‘hair-down’ performance. My wig didn’t quite fall off, but the energy sparks from every note and there is a real feel of live ‘swing’ which is irresistible.

For the French Suites we are back in the Hannover Beethovensaal, but with marginally more space between the microphones and the piano the acoustic is given more of a chance. The difference must be fractional, but that dryness for the Inventions and Sinfonias is no longer an issue here. My references for the French Suites are scattered somewhere between Michael Studer, that Till Fellner disc I mentioned earlier, and Glenn Gould on prized but scratchy old LPs. Angela Hewitt’s playing on these two discs is like a breeze of warm, fresh and fragrant air through your listening space. She doesn’t impose artificiality or pretension between us and the music, but creates worlds of vital dynamic contrast, sensitivity of touch and elegantly poised musical flow. The programme is nicely thought through as well, with the Sonata in D minor forming a fine introduction, the Little Preludes a charming and not insubstantial intermezzo, before that trio of masterpieces the French Suites 4-6, and a robust finale in the A minor Prelude and Fugue BWV 894. Every litmus test of quality in this set comes up trumps, from the life-enhancing ‘up-ness’ of the final Gigue from the French Suite No.5 to the movingly intense expression of the Sarabande from the French Suite No.6. At each turn you should find yourself nodding in agreement, tapping feet in an itch to move to the dance movements or shedding a silent tear where Bach goes straight for the heartstrings.

Another of Angela Hewitt’s very fine two disc sets is that of the Partitas. She tells the story of how, between the two sessions, she had to make the difficult decision to cease working with the producer with whom she had made all of her Bach recordings to 1996, so that sound engineer Ludger Böckenhoff became Hewitt’s hyper-critical official second set of ears and producer and engineer for the second session, and indeed all of her remaining Bach recordings. In terms of sound and quality of performance there is no discernable difference between the two discs however, and at the risk of repeating myself this is very much the way Bach should sound on the piano – transparent and filled with variety of expression while maintaining that essential clarity of counterpoint and musical argument. By way of stylistic comparison I had a listen to how Maria João Pires approached the Partita No.1 on her Deutsche Grammophon Bach disc. These are both fine performances, and there are arguments for both. Hewitt goes in less for extremes, her tempi being rather evened out in comparison to Pires’s much swifter Corrente and slower Sarabande. Another aspect one notices is how little Hewitt uses the pedal. She gives the impression of hardly using it at all, and is on record as saying how the ability to play legato on the piano without pedal is useful in all kinds of music. Pires is fairly subtle as well, but allows the notes to melt into each other far more, creating a different kind of atmosphere and linking lines and swelling dynamic within phrases more literally where Hewitt does it by linking harmonic tensions and seeking solutions in finer detail. Pires is also more romantically ‘orchestral’, with the conclusion of that opening Praeludium positively symphonic. I always find myself between a rock swing and a hard roundabout place when coming down on the side of one camp or another with these kinds of comparisons, and both have their place and sense of personal value. I do love the way Hewitt varies repeats however, and the way she keeps everything in proportion, managing to be so expressive and lyrical without ever going ‘over the top’. Have a listen to the way she changes colour at 3:11 into the Sarabande as well – wow. Murray Perahia is another very strong contender with these on the Sony label, projecting a bit more masculine power here and there perhaps, but on a par in terms of musical intelligence and sensitivity. I am reluctant to start a volume of blow by blow comparisons though, and these are the kinds of pieces of which collectors are unlikely to have just one recording. In general I would say that Hewitt treads that very fine line between playing truly expressively and from the heart while remaining faithful to Bach’s idiom. It may not always raise the pulse-rate in quite the way some pianists seem keen to encourage, but Hewitt’s Bach always remains delightful and a joy to have around. So, I’ll push my boat out and take her Partitas to the desert island for now.

Any complete recording of Bach’s keyboard works will have the Well-Tempered Clavier as a central and essential element. This is not the earlier and highly successful 1998/99 Hyperion cycle. As Angela Hewitt describes in the last few paragraphs of the booklet notes, this is the more recent recording made in 2008 towards the end of her ‘Bach World Tour’. One thing a box like this might make us forget is that, as well as being a busy recording artist, Angela Hewitt has been touring widely and has been bringing her Bach to audiences all over the world over the years, one such programme including the Bach Arrangements which is alas not included in this set. The sense of real-life experience and wisdom from performing Bach’s Preludes and Fugues all over the world is something which adds a palpable sense in intimate knowledge of the work on this recording.

By all accounts, this recording of Das Wolhltemperirte Clavier is something rather special. Made on her own Fazioli instrument in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, the full range of colour and dynamics right down to really soft are all exceptionally well observed, and there are so many moments and movements which hold one transfixed in rapturous and timeless concentration that this becomes music which almost transcends critical comment.

Comment we must however, so here are a few remarks perhaps aimed at people who already own the earlier cycle, and who may be dithering as to whether investing in another complete WTC is wise. For a start, the later cycle is a tad longer. 1998/9 is around 263 minutes in total, the 2008 set just over 270. This is not so much a consequence of slower tempi, though there are plenty of examples where Hewitt gives the music more air and space. My conclusion is that a bulk of the extra time derives from a greater sense of expressive freedom in the more recent recording. Hewitt’s playing is less typically ‘Bachian’ in the second cycle, more romantic – while still hitting all the right idiomatic and stylistic notes. She responds more flexibly to that ‘rise and fall of the human voice’ which she has stated to be seeking in her expression of Bach’s lyrical lines, and as a result the overall feeling is more personal. My own feeling is that the music has a more narrative feel, that Hewitt in her myriad performances of this grand work has found extra layers of meaning which, while always the individual and personal response of the listener, nevertheless generates a heightened sense of involvement and engagement with Bach’s fascinating inventiveness. With the earlier cycle, Hewitt’s dynamics tend to be more baroque, moving stepwise more in proportion to that subtle romantic swell which takes greater prominence in the second recording. Hewitt’s ‘rise and fall’ gives more a sense of rolling waves in this newer recording, whether turbulent or gentle.

Is everything perfect? Almost, though I did spot a very few moments where tastes may differ. The wonderfully extended Fugue in C sharp minor from Book I builds from almost nothing, and with a tremendous sense of rising tension, though I am less keen on the extend of stretching in the rhythm of that grand climax. There are those who may take a while to become accustomed to her more romantic approach in the 2008 recording. Take the ‘rolling waves’ of rubato in the Prelude in G sharp minor from Book I as an example, or the way the opening Prelude in C major from Book II never quite finds out in which gear it wants to be driven. She makes the unconventional choice of a C sharp in bar 7 of the Prelude in G major BWV 884 from Book II, presumably in order to unify an A major tonality with that occurring in subsequent bars, but going against the evidence of the original manuscript and coming as a bit of a surprise, though not to owners of the 1999 set on which she does the same thing. I don’t find these relatively trivial elements too troubling, but can imagine the distance widening between Hewitt and those faithful to a more authentic approach in such cases.

Of the more recent piano recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier to come my way, that of Roger Woodward on the Celestial Harmonies label has remained a firm favourite, but I have to admit Angela Hewitt’s is the better recording. Woodward is placed in a more swimmy acoustic, and the piano sound is a bit tubbier and subject to some noticeable ‘echo shots’ at times. As far as performance goes I’m not going to make a choice between any of the multitude of recordings I have or have had float past over the years. I don’t want Glenn Gould all of the time, but still marvel at much of his Bach having given myself the pleasant task of rediscovering it while driving long distances this summer. Sviatoslav Richter is also still well up there near the top, but both of these examples frequently place a heavier burden of interpretation on Bach’s music than does Hewitt, and her subtly felt but relatively direct approach and distinct avoidance of pedal usage works wonders. Daniel Barenboim, another respected WTC performer, mentioned that, far from being the end point of a musical direction which had pretty much reached its ultimate state of development, it is in fact more the starting point for a huge amount of Western musical history. It has everything, and one can trace lines from Bach which range from Beethoven to Be-Bop. The sense I gain from this recording is that Angela Hewitt is fully aware of every aspect of the special nature of this vast and all-embracing work, as well as being alert to all of the minutiae and nuances which make up a truly valuable performance. This is a magical Wohltemperirte, and is likely to be played most often of all these works by any owner of this box set.

And there are yet more jewels and riches to be experienced. All of the remaining discs are recorded in the reliably excellent acoustic of the Henry Wood Hall in London, and with Angela Hewitt as our reliably excellent guide you can be sure of a surfeit of gorgeousness and excitement. Disc 12 has a rousing Presto to conclude the Italian Concerto BWV 971, with that perfect blend of clear articulation and legato brushstrokes which Hewitt brings to Bach at any tempo. The Capriccio BWV 992 is the one subtitled ‘on the Departure of his Beloved Brother’ and is played with touching poignancy on this recording. The central Adagissimo is a musical statement of heartbreaking simplicity rivalling Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, and the ‘happy ending’ post-horn Fuga is great fun; the kind of thing to which Mozart would have set dirty words. Hewitt shows her feel for wit and humour in the throwaway gestures of the Capriccio BWV 993, the Four Duets hold a surprising richness of counterpoint, and are musical conversations which are a constant source of discovery and delight. The disc concludes with the B minor French Overture BWV 831, which is also full of jaw-dropping marvels. I particularly like the jazzy Brubeck-feel to the bass of the opening of the Courante, tamed on the repeat, and further evidence of Hewitt’s highly detailed depth of thinking with all of these pieces. The dance pieces are perfectly paced. You can imagine formal pattern-making on the 18th century ballrooms in the Passepied, and the dynamic control in the final Echo is superb.

Another central and essential Bach keyboard work is the Goldberg Variations. Angela Hewitt tells her anecdote about the recording sessions in the booklet. The piano, a Steinway transported all the way from Germany on a trailer, had been tweaked to improve its response towards the end of the week long session, and late in the evening on what was supposed to be only a test of the instrument the piece ended up being played through and recorded in its entirely, the majority of which becoming the version we have here. This is another of Bach’s works which can stand having an entire shelf to itself as far as I’m concerned, and I still greatly value Andras Schiff on Decca, Murray Perahia on Sony, both of Glenn Gould’s recordings, and even some versions which go beyond the piano into entirely different regions of sonority. Angela Hewitt’s “performance of my life of the Goldberg Variations” is filled with supple grace and a remarkable sense of tightly structured unity. She plays all the repeats, which fleshes the piece out a great deal more than with many recordings, allowing for a good deal of flexibility in interpretation, and that trademark variety of touch and voicing Hewitt brings to reprises. For Hewitt the central axis of the piece seems to be Variation 25, which at close to 8 minutes seems almost to suspend time itself. At close to 80 minutes in total you might have the feeling this could become too much of a good thing, but I never found the repeats of the sheer duration any kind of a drag – indeed, this amounts to a heightened complete Goldberg Variations total immersion experience, which with such marvellous playing can only be a very good thing indeed.

Angela Hewitt describes the recording of the Toccatas as one of her personal favourites of the whole cycle. Hyperion has made no effort to add individual access points to each movement within the seven Toccatas, which was one of my only criticisms of this release when comparing it to a recent recording by Andrea Bacchetti. It certainly sounds as if Hewitt is having a great time with these pieces, and you only need to try the opening of the Toccata in G major BWV 916 to feel the joy leaping from that Steinway. While these are relatively early Bach works there is no lack in expressive content, and these extremes of contrast in mood are handled perfectly by Hewitt. What fugues there are have plenty of sophistication, and Hewitt once again relishes the challenge of creating clarity through individual colour in the voices of these closely-knit musical arguments. She also has the knack of making those sometimes rather banal sequences so mercilessly lampooned by Victor Borge sound interesting and with a sense of meaning and direction, with the fourth ‘movement’ of BWV 910 at 5:20 a very poetic example.

The fifteenth and final Bach disc of this set contains what Angela Hewitt describes as the ‘mopping up disc’ of miscellaneous works, and aside from the WTC remake was the last to be recorded of the initial Hyperion set. CD 15 contains some wonderful lesser-known surprises, not least the very fine Fantasia and Fugue BWV 904. A stately Aria is followed by ten Variata ’alla Maniera Italiana in BWV 989, which remains steadfastly in A minor and has more the feel of a set of stylistic exercises rather than anything approaching Bach’s greatest work. The Sonata in D major BWV 963 has a pleasant character with a nice enough central Fugue, and a fun finale in the form of a Thema all’imitatio Gallina Cuccu. More baroque high jinks are to be had in the Air pour les trompettes which form part of the Partie BWV 832. The Suite in F minor BWV 823 is filled with surprisingly heartfelt regretfulness, even including the final Gigue, which dances hand in hand with pathos in its minor key. Even darker is the Adagio BWV 968, which explores low and throbbing moods in a fascinating and slowly evolving harmonic progression. Relief follows in the exhibitionist C major form of a Fugue BWV 953, before another brace of movingly soulful pieces, hymn arrangements of Jesu, meine Zuversicht and Wer nur den lieben Gott last walten. The CD ends with another magical discovery, the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV 944, the remarkably beautiful first part of which is an all too brief introduction, followed by a busy fugue filled with manic runs.

This is almost the end of the story, but wait, what’s this at the bottom of the box? Hyperion have also thrown in a canny awareness-raising compilation CD called NOT Bach, in which Angela Hewitt’s extensive repertoire including and beyond the Baroque is represented by composers from Handel and Rameau, through a cracking performance of Beethoven’s entire Pathétique Sonata, some Chopin, Schumann and Chabrier, and including Ravel’s Sonatine and some Messiaen. The last track of this is Angela Hewitt’s own arrangement of Bach’s BWV 643, Alle Menschen müssen sterben from the ‘Bach Arrangements’ CD, and very stirring it is too. The only wish is that this and all the concertos could have been included in the box, but I suspect Hyperion’s marketing department would have considered this less than wise. As far as awareness raising goes, I would only further direct those interested in Bach on the piano to Hyperion’s excellent ongoing ‘Bach Piano Transcriptions’ series. As far as value for money goes, Angela Hewitt’s hunky Bach box slashes the price of all of the titles included by about half what they cost individually, so there has never been a better time to invest in one object likely to eclipse many others in anyone’s collection.

On the BBC there is a series about Antiques on which the experts are occasionally asked what artefacts from their own collections they would pluck from the flames while desperately fleeing if their house caught fire. I’m sure the fire department advises against plucking anything, and I’m fairly sure CDs would be the last thing on my mind if such a state of affairs were to occur, but listening to and appreciating this superb Bach collection made me think about the box sets I would attempt to rescue in a theoretical fire. In fact, these are fairly few. I count the Mozart Piano Concertos played by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra on the Sony label as essential, and given the chance would surely also pocket the Alfred Brendel Beethoven Piano Sonatas, as well as the Mitsuku Uchida Schubert Piano Sonatas, and Keith Jarrett’s Sun Bear Concerts… Do we see a pattern emerging here? Aside from the fact that I would by now have long been consumed by burning jewel cases, it would appear I am fairly keen on good piano music.

Anyway, things have changed now. Eyes watering from the smoke, burning beams falling all around and not a superhero in sight, the decision has just been made that much easier. I’ll now be happy with just the one box: Angela Hewitt’s Bach.

Dominy Clements

CD 1 [63.09] Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906 [4:36] Fifteen Two-Part Inventions, BWV 772-786 [20:21] Fifteen Three-Part Sinfonias, BWV 787-801 [25:48] Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903 [12:03] rec. January 1994, Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany.

CD 2 [71:37] English Suite No.1 in A major, BWV 806 [28:00] English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV 807 [21:15] English Suite No.3 in G minor, BWV 808 [22:20] rec. August 2002 and April 2003, Henry Wood Hall, London

CD 3 [72:22] English Suite No.4 in F major, BWV 809 [20:38] English Suite No.5 in E minor, BWV 810 [20:34] English Suite No.6 in D minor, BWV 811 [31:09] rec. August 2002 and April 2003, Henry Wood Hall, London

CD 4 [73:05] Sonata in D minor, BWV 964 [18:22] French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812 [15:15] French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813 [15:58] French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814 [15:45] Six Little Preludes, BWV 924-928, 930 [7:09] rec. June and August 1995, Beethovensaal, Hannover

CD 5 [77:49] Six Little Preludes, BWV 933-938 [10:41] Six Little Preludes, BWV 939-943, 999 [5:56] French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815 [17:42] French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 [17:46] French Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817 [15:13] Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894 [9:37] rec. June and August 1995, Beethovensaal, Hannover

CD 6 [70:49] Partita no. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825 [17:56] Partita no. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 [20:14] Partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828 [32:27] rec. June 1996, Beethovensaal, Hannover

CD 7 [72:33] Partita no. 3 in A minor, BWV 827 [18:52] Partita no. 5 in G major, BWV 829 [20:47] Partita no. 6 in E minor, BWV 830 [32:33] rec. January 1997, Beethovensaal, Hannover

CD 8 [58:55] Das Wohltemperirte Klavier Book I
Preludes and fugues BWV 846-869, Nos 1-12 [58:55]

CD 9 [59:13] Das Wohltemperirte Klavier Book I
Preludes and fugues BWV 846-869, Nos 13-24 [59:13]

CD 10 [75:38] Das Wohltemperirte Klavier Book II
Preludes and fugues BWV 870-893, Nos 1-12 [75:38]

CD 11 [77:20] Das Wohltemperirte Klavier Book II
Preludes and fugues BWV 870-893, Nos 13-24 [77:20] rec. September 2008, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

CD 12 [71:19] Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971 [12:45] Capriccio in B flat major, BWV 992 [10:10] Capriccio in E major, BWV 993 [15:13] Four Duets, BWV 802-805 [10:44] French Overture in B minor, BWV 831 [32:25] rec. October 2000, Henry Wood Hall, London

CD 13 [78:30] Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [78:30] rec. September 1999, Henry Wood Hall, London

CD 14 [68.55] Toccata in C minor, BWV 911 [12:12] Toccata in G major, BWV 916 [7:27] Toccata in F sharp minor, BWV 910 [10:22] Toccata in E minor, BWV 914 [6:49] Toccata in D minor, BWV 913 [11:42] Toccata in G minor, BWV 915 [9:00] Toccata in D major, BWV 912 [11:22] rec. January 2002, Henry Wood Hall, London.

CD 15 [67:42] Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904 [7:59] Aria Variata ‘alla Maniera Italiana’, BWV 989 [16:16] Sonata in D major, BWV 963 [8:52] Partie in A major, BWV 832 [8:45] Suite in F minor, BWV 823 [8:26] Adagio in G major, BWV 968 [5:08] Fugue in C major, BWV 953 [1:22] Jesu, meine Zuversicht, BWV 728 [2:48] Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, BWV 691 [2:14] Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 944 [5:51] rec. February 2004, Henry Wood Hall, London