Wednesday 24 November 2010

Angela Hewitt's Bach Book, 23 November 2010

Wigmore Hall

Bach – ‘Chromatic’ Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903
Kurt Schwertsik – Fantasia and Fuga, op.105
Bach – Three-part Inventions, BWV 796-801
Dominic Muldowney – Fantasia on BACH
Elena Kats-Chernin – Bach Study
Bach-Walton – Chorale Prelude: Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727
Bach-Howells – Chorale Prelude: O mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, BWV 622
Bach – Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894

Angela Hewitt (piano)

A worthy idea: ‘to ask,’ in Angela Hewitt’s words, ‘composers of my time to write short pieces inspired somehow by Bach’. This was the second of two concerts in which the results, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of the Fondation Hoffmann, were programmed. I could not help but wish that the three composers featured here had followed the precedent of Sir William Walton, Herbert Howells, and other contributors to the earlier Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, and confined themselves to transcription, for the three new compositions proved less than inspiring.

Best was Dominic Muldowney’s Fantasia on BACH, which did not seem to take itself too seriously. The fabled musical letters were audible yet somewhat transformed in their post-modernist treatment, which made its way swiftly thought ‘clockwork’ chorale, four-part fugue, two-part invention, stretto, ‘badly remembered’ recapitulation, and three-bar coda. The tango rhythm that kept resurfacing amused. Kurt Schwertsik’s programme note, speaking of tension between Sebastian and Emanuel Bach, read more interestingly than Schwertsik’s music. Its fantasia brought to mind, in its harmonic language at least, Prokofiev – not exactly a Bachian figure – more than anyone else, mixed with Hindemith. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that this might have been written after the year of the composer’s birth, 1935. The fugue seemed to lose Prokofiev and to transfer its affections to Shostakovich, though Hindemith remained. It ambled on amiably enough for a while, before an admittedly cheeky close. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Bach Study was allegedly ‘a reflection on Bach’s most famous Cello Suite in G major’. ‘Reflection’ was not immediately apparent, the result sounding more like imitation Michael Nyman, its vapid minimalism suggesting a suitable home on a Channel 4 ‘drama’ of a certain vintage.

After that low point, it was an extraordinary relief to return to Bach. (Is it ever not?) Walton and Howells showed restraint and mastery in their transcriptions of two chorale preludes. In collaboration with Hewitt’s pianistic skills, the works transferred very well to the piano, though they made this sometime organist wistful for the instrument on which he once would play this music. Hewitt’s way was not to accentuate the labyrinthine chromaticism of Herzlich tut mich verlangen: it sounded closer to Walton than, say, to Berg. But there was great dignity to both performances, and she allowed herself greater Romanticism in the Howells transcription, Bach as ever proving the greatest of all the Romantics. The exploratory harmony is, even by his standards, truly extraordinary, and so it sounded here.

Unhyphenated Bach did well too. The ‘Chromatic’ Fantasia benefited from a vigorous opening flourish, whose implications worked themselves out in what was to come. Hewitt offered a beautifully shaded account of this and the fugue, her legato touch impeccable. The fugue was more Apollonian – though certainly not, thank God, neo-Classical – than Dionysian in quality, the delight in Bach’s invention ‘purely’ musical. Lack of Gothic grandeur may to an extent be attributed to the brightness of Hewitt’s favoured Fazioli instrument. Six three-part inventions provided a wonderful sample, the opening contrast between no.10 in G major and no.11 in G minor especially winning. The former flowed easily, whilst the latter hinted at something more frenchified, perhaps even with a suggestion of Scarlatti in the minor mode; at any rate there was a sense of relative unpredictablity. A major brought warmth, whilst A minor proposed a sublimated, never arch, courtliness. Suggestions of Claude Daquin in the B minor piece (no.15) were gracefully apt. In the closing A minor Prelude and Fugue, Hewitt sounded liberated by the experience of the Walton and Howells transcriptions, her greater freedom redolent of an ‘encore’ moment, though not at the expense of thoughtful dynamic shading.

Three encores, when they came, perhaps proved one too many, though it was good to hear a transcription (Hewitt’s own?) of In dulci jubilo (BWV 729, I think) and considerably more than ‘good’ to close with a rapt account of the ‘Aria’ from the Goldberg Variations. Therein, one knew, lay the ‘real thing’.