The new WTC on Hyperion

2009-03-27 / The Times, London / Geoff Brown

Angela Hewitt: The Well-Tempered Clavier 2008 Recording

Hyperion Records

Hasn’t Angela Hewitt already recorded this? Yes indeed, successfully too, some ten years ago. But no great pianist should stand still, especially when playing a many-sided monument such as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier — those two epic sets of preludes and fugues that slowly mount the pitches one by one from C major upwards. (You even meet D sharp minor; it’s like seeing a rare animal in the zoo.)

Bach meant these collections as pedagogical aids, not material for epic recitals. Over the set’s four and a half hours you are entitled to fidget. Yet with Hewitt, who needs to? If you aren’t hooked by her Book One C major prelude — noble yet nonchalant, gently flecked with rubato — rush to a doctor immediately. And on she proceeds, track after track, illuminating the music with great sensitivity and interpretative freedom.

In the ten years since 1999, Hewitt’s feeling for Bach has widened. The touch of her fingers is lighter now; her pulse is more elastic. The piano, too, has changed.

Now it’s a Fazioli, luminous and microscopically subtle. With Hyperion’s recording, even its reverberations are a joy; witness those lingering last notes, crowned with a halo. Fugal counterpoint, dry on the page, dances before us, multicoloured. Chromatic shifts are equally vivid. And she interprets the character of the pieces so sharply, from the princely gait of Book One’s C minor fugue to the teasing steps of its B minor prelude, where she seems to be following the artist Paul Klee, “taking a line for a walk”.

WTC recordings are quite abundant. I made some lightning comparisons. Into the CD player went tracks from Richard Egarr’s new Book One recording (Harmonia Mundi), played on a harpsichord. Egarr ejected, in went the lord of idiosyncrasies, Glenn Gould, from the 1960s. Compared with Hewitt, Gould was playing with a hammer. His colours and tones were flatter; tempos sometimes warranted a speeding ticket. Egarr’s interpretation was defined by his harpsichord, an instrument hopeless at stiletto attack, but glorious in fussy decorations.

I emerged with my faith unshaken. The 2009 Hewitt — protean, humane, modern but respectful, beautifully recorded — was the version to live with. It would even sound good, I’m sure, on the BBC’s desert island.