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Angela, Joy of Man's Desiring — by Jens Laurson

Arriving at the National Gallery on a grisly Sunday at 4:15 pm, I was the fourth person to take a place among the patently insane, who were sitting in front of the entrance to the West Garden Court. Cause and reason for this dedicated bunch (more were soon to follow) was a concert that was not to begin until 7:00 pm, featuring one of "the pre-eminent Bach pianists of our time" (as The Guardian of London has put it), Canadian Angela Hewitt.

Playing at the National Gallery of Art was something of a full circle, given that she had played here at the beginning of her career, in 1978, shortly after having won the Washington Johann Sebastian Bach International Competition three years prior. Several years later, in 1985, she went on to win the Toronto International Bach Competition, which flung her into the international limelight; almost another decade later, in 1994, she started her highly acclaimed recording project of Bach’s major works for keyboard on the Hyperion label, which is scheduled to be completed next year.

Two facts contributed to the early showing of a dedicated two dozen fans: the concerts at the National Gallery are, of course, free and first come, first serve (without the cumbersome but wholly appreciated Ticketmaster procedure of most other venues these days). In addition, the West Garden Court in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art is capitally unfit as a concert venue: trees, gigantic pillars, and a large fountain in the center of the Garden leave, depending on the setup, between 40 and 60 seats with a decent view, of which 20 are always reserved. A lucky few will have a good sightline, while most of the remaining roughly 300 concertgoers must take to their uncomfortable folding chairs, where they either see nothing at all or very little at best. Expecting a name like Mme. Hewitt's to attract a huge following, I wanted to make sure that I would not be relegated to sitting behind a pillar.

Veteran audience members had their reading materials with them and waited patiently until 6 pm when we were allowed inside the Court. The long wait paid off in that I was seated right behind Angela Hewitt, some 6 feet away from the keyboard of the Gallery’s Steinway. Three hours after my arrival, Angela Hewitt appeared, wearing a cobalt blue dress with unattached sleeves, and with a radiant smile. She sat down and went to work.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op.26 (a welcome change from the earlier program notes indicating the more famous but less satisfying op.17, #2, also known as the "Moonlight Sonata") began. Her entire body communicated musicality as she acted out the music almost as much as she played it. Beethoven went with her through the Variations of the theme of the first movement (Andante con variazioni), perhaps intended as a reminder of the highlight of the program to come. Major, minor, chopped, and rollingly fluid, the theme developed, and Angela Hewitt went along with all of it. A vivacious second movement (Scherzo: Allegro) that sounded just as it exists in my head (which would be Maurizio Pollini’s rendition) followed. Perhaps a few tiny unclean passages towards the end, but no less ravishing as she moved toward the famous Funeral March (Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe).

This movement sounded a bit broader than I am used to or would have expected: it plays with acuteness and every note gets its accentuation, its declamation. Indeed, it seems as though the melody and continuity suffered slightly at the hand of all these exclamation marks that Maestra Hewitt procured. After she lingered endlessly on the last note, she swept into the finale (Allegro) Right from the beginning she put the pedal to the metal (or, more accurately, the stone floor) and hardly took a rest until she finished this first part of the concert, which resulted in some slurred music played a tiny notch below technical perfection. All these points, however, did not detract from the joy and delight that all in attendance took from her wonderfully involved playing of a rightly popular and accessible work.

After the intermission, the real attraction came: Johann Sebastian Bach: Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV 988 ("Goldberg Variations"). The opening Aria set the tone for her interpretation of the entire work. Playing, indeed: wringing out the notes as if marked molto espressivo, she played with feeling and verve. "The piano has a pedal: well, then why not use it" may well be her attitude. The matter-of-fact nature of the music itself contrasted interestingly with her playing, in which she seemed to imbue the music with something additional, but not too much and never disturbingly so.

She enjoyed the rhythm and danced along the variations, and unlike a famous compatriot of hers, she gave a humming-free, rather conventional (given that Bach on the grand piano has long become the convention) reading of the score. A score, which she did not need, as she played from memory. Count Kayserlingk, for whom these variations were written, allegedly had them played at night as an antidote to his insomnia. With Angela Hewitt's performance, this work would have failed miserably on that account. Herr Kayserlingk would likely have enjoyed the performance, but he could not have possibly fallen asleep, given the liveliness and volume that her playing reached at numerous points. Variation 29 (Sonata) had her arms flying like a windmill, pedal and exuberance communicating an energy seldom found even in some of the best renditions of the Goldberg Variations, even if some endings were muddled under the heavy use of the pedal and the occasional additional and unplanned-for note having been struck. In the slower parts, especially in the Aria da Capo that ends the piece, she visibly enjoyed lingering on every note as though to suck it dry like kids enjoying honeysuckle. Finishing notes were held, pedal down, for long seconds.

After the very last note, which lasted long until after it had ceased to be audible, generous applause broke out—impressive enough for a Washington audience, at any rate, and good enough to call Mme. Hewitt back a fourth time, resulting in an encore. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, part of her award-winning 2001 CD of Bach arrangements, was a quaint conclusion that left few wishes unanswered and a gaggle of excited regulars lining up to thank her in person for her appearance and presentation.

The concert was also another case in point of how good the free concerts in Washington are, while the paying clientele is served a rather drab commercial fare. This is highlighted by upcoming events that will include Menahem Pressler, the Juilliard Quartet, and perhaps today's most technically skilled pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin—all within a fortnight. A fitting Christmas present for those motivated enough to get out and be delighted.

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