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2009-05-03 / The Sunday Times / Hugh Canning

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II – Angela Hewitt (piano)

Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues used to be called the “Old Testament” of the keyboard repertoire — Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas being the “New” — but how many pianists today engage, in practical terms, with Bach’s two great cycles of pieces encompassing all 12 of the traditional key signatures of western music? Ten years ago, Angela Hewitt recorded the “48” as part of her complete survey of Bach’s keyboard oeuvre for Hyperion, but then, as she explains in the booklet note to her 2008 recording: “I let (The Well-Tempered Clavier) go while I recorded the remaining works.” In 2005, she resumed performances of Book I, adding Book II “in instalments” during the first part of 2007 in preparation for an astounding world tour in which she performed the complete work(s) in 58 cities in 21 countries on six continents. It is hard to think of another pianist so steeped in Bach — almost a quarter of a century has passed since she won the Toronto Bach competition that launched her international career — who has so consistently returned to the foundation stones of the modern piano repertoire.

In her new recording, she seems less concerned than before to emulate the crisp, slightly clipped quality of Bach’s keyboard instruments with plucking mechanism, and conceives the marvellous works more pianistically, with greater expressive freedom, but never romanticises or sentimentalises the music, as Barenboim does on his recent Warner recording. As ever with Hewitt, the joie de vivre she finds in this music remains exhilarating. Even if you own her old set, this new one cries out to be heard.

Hyperion CDA67741/4