Royal Festival Hall
Angela Hewitt (piano)
All the clichés concerning the ‘48’ are true: the Old Testament of the piano repertoire (Hans von Bülow, though I have also seen the quotation attributed to Liszt), and so forth. Speaking as a pianist, there is a great deal of music without which I should feel bereft but, were everything else somehow to be lost, I think I could just about cope so long as I were able to play the Well-tempered Clavier. One would be hard put, to put it mildly, to perform both books in a single sitting, although I can imagine Daniel Barenboim pulling it off one of these days, perhaps to preface a St Matthew Passion. Even performances of a whole book at a time are not all that common, which, given the challenges involved, is just as well; indeed, it is a good thing that such a performance should be a special occasion. And a special occasion this was. I was enormously moved by how visibly moved Angela Hewitt was at the end of the recital. It would be a scandal if to perform this music meant little to a performer, but one could see that Bach meant almost everything to her. Whatever qualifications I may voice below – and they generally relate to matters of taste rather than of judgement – this was a tremendous achievement from a fine pianist, a fine musician, and a fine Bachian.
Perhaps through nerves, the first Prelude and Fugue, in C major, was a little below par. Pianists are understandably eager to avoid sentimentalising the Prelude, given Gounod’s dreadful bowdlerisation, but I found Hewitt’s reading disappointingly plain, over-restricted in dynamic contrasts and crying out for a touch of pedal. Bach’s homage to the style brisé of the clavecinistes can bear a little romanticism at least. (Hewitt has shown herself unafraid to draw from a wider palette in Couperin.) The fugue had a couple of stumbles, though nothing about which to worry unduly. Thereafter, however, there was barely a weak link in the progression.
To begin with, I worried that Hewitt might be treating the music with kid-gloves. The C minor and D major Prelude and Fugues, for example, were beautifully performed, but might have been considered a little precious. The brightness of Hewitt’s Fazioli piano did not help, I thought, but she doubtless has her reasons for preferring this instrument. However, there were already exceptions: the stile antico C sharp minor Fugue evinced real gravity without ever becoming ponderous. And the sarabande E flat minor Prelude was gravely beautiful, the weighting of the second beat perfectly judged and varied so as to lilt without the slightest hint of period pedantry. I was put in mind of Busoni’s masterful Sarabande und Cortège.
Hewitt certainly had the measure of the E flat major Prelude and Fugue. Its tremendous Prelude – a toccata and double fugue in itself – was very well-judged, the toccata possessing enough of a sense of quasi-improvisatory freedom to contrast with the strictness of the fugue. Her voicing of its double counterpoint was a splendid example of variation in light and shade, of shifting perspectives, whilst remaining relatively ‘Classical’ in outlook. There are other, more ‘Romantic’ ways of accomplishing this, but Hewitt’s worked just as well. After the Prelude, the relative lightness of the Fugue proper came as a refreshing though far from insubstantial sorbet: Hewitt’s touch aptly had something of the Mendelssohn scherzo about it. The extraordinary variety of Bach’s imagination was well served by this inversion of what would usually be considered ‘typical’, namely a Prelude leading onto a more searching, ‘substantial’ Fugue. In fact, as Hewitt showed, there is nothing ‘typical’ in Bach’s wisdom: systematic in a positive rather than bureaucratic fashion. Classification in the sense of nineteenth-century theorisers such as Cherubini (Tovey’s bête noire) has no place here.
The F major Fugue flowed beautifully, thanks to Hewitt’s exquisite voicing (the and her finely judged sense of rhythmic momentum – which only seemed to desert her in the somewhat awkward-sounding G minor Fugue. (Nobody, bar perhaps Edwin Fischer, is perfect!) From the F minor Prelude and Fugue onwards, a new gravity was apparent. Initially, I put this down to the involved chromaticism of the fugue, but there was a sense thereafter of new metaphysical horizons. This is speculation, but I wondered whether Hewitt was attempting to impart more of a sense of progression within the ‘work’ as a whole, intending to climax in the extraordinary B minor Fugue (of which more below). There are many things one could say about this, both pro and contra, but I do not think we need bother ourselves here with the composer’s spurious intention, since the ‘work’, such as it is, was never ‘intended’ to be performed whole in any case. I think Hewitt’s approach, if I am correct in divining it, is a perfectly reasonably one, although it might slightly have undersold the earlier Preludes and Fugues.
I do not wish to imply that this necessarily involved romanticisation – or even Romanticisation – of the second half of the book, although there was more of a sense of the Gothic to the fugues, especially those in minor keys. However, it revealed Hewitt as a more Romantically-inclined Bach pianist than I had previously considered to be the case. There was still a great difference between her and, say, Fischer, let alone Barenboim or Richter (Sviatoslav, not Karl), but I was pleased to have my misconception corrected. Nor did this development preclude a declamatory, more ‘Baroque’ style where appropriate, as for instance at the opening of the A flat major Prelude. However, I was a little surprised – and not at all unpleasantly – to hear the B flat minor Prelude taken quite so slowly and its accompanying fugue achieving quite so pianist a climax. The bass of the B minor Prelude was taken non legato, as often seems to be the case. (Even Barenboim does this.) I tend to prefer it otherwise, but have to admit that I was convinced by the contrast between right hand and left hand, which somehow – I am not quite sure why – put me in mind of the texture of Mozart’s Bach homage in the Magic Flute’s choral prelude for the Two Armoured Men. The B minor Fugue was given quite a Romantic reading, not afraid to use the full resources of the modern instrument. Here, I prefer a more extreme, labyrinthine, almost Bergian approach to this extraordinary harmonic counterpoint, which is really not so far from the Second Viennese School; not for nothing did Schoenberg, pointing to this very fugue, call Bach ‘the first composer with twelve tones’. However, on its own terms, Hewitt’s account worked very well and brought the recital to an exciting climax. She thoroughly deserved her extended ovation.