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Angela Hewitt's English Suites

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J. S. Bach, English Suites (BWV 806-811), Angela Hewitt, piano (released on October 14, 2003)
One thing that a listener can learn from a live performance -- and not from a recording, at least not as well -- is something about a performer's character. Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is a deliberate player, and cautious might not be too strong a word except for the negative connotation it has for a virtuoso, which is not what I intend. In her 2003 recording of Bach's English Suites (see also Andrew McGregor's review for the BBC, from 2003), her tempi are often one notch to the reserved side of the metronome bar, speeds that allow her to focus all of her considerable skill on individuating voices, crafting delicate ornamentation, and carefully shading textures. In painting terms, Hewitt is creating the fine details of a small-format Dutch landscape or still life, not splattering paint on large canvases like Delacroix or Pollack. Both approaches can make for superlative listening.

This is not to say that Hewitt does not play some very fast movements (like the rollicking gigue of the fourth suite), but even those are not precipitous as you sometimes hear in Gould's recordings or Hamelin's. More often than not, Hewitt hits precisely upon that tempo giusto for a Bach movement, and makes up for an occasional lack of excitement with an impressive control. No detail of the score -- hints of thematic fragments, references to other genres, textural shifts -- escapes her attention. Take a listen for yourself to these excerpt tracks from Hyperion.

Angela Hewitt on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, Angela Hewitt at the National Gallery (December 18, 2003)

Jens F. Laurson, Dip Your Ears, No. 39: Angela Hewitt, Bach Concerti, vol. 2 (July 31, 2005)

English Suites on Ionarts:

Piotr Anderszewski at the NGA (6th suite, April 27, 2006)

David Cates at the Library of Congress (3rd suite, April 23, 2005)
What makes the English Suites distinctive, nothing to do with their putative national origin (a mistake of a title if ever there was one), is the fact that they open with impressive prelude movements, in some cases extended. As I noodle around with the English Suites from time to time at home, I enjoy playing each of the prelude movements the most of all, especially the concerto-like ones in the second and third suites. I enjoyed all of Hewitt's prelude readings, except for the lugubrious rendition of the sixth prelude's opening, but the dreary first section yields to an ebullient gigue.

Angela Hewitt, pianistAs a young person Angela Hewitt -- the daughter of Dr. Godfrey Hewitt, organist and choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, who died the year before this recording was released -- was also trained in dance (tall and thin, she still has a dancer's frame), and the balletic play of her arms over the keyboard is something you can appreciate only when you see her play in person. In the dance movements of these suites, Hewitt's performances are impelled by rhythm, not implacably but with the insistence of human movement. (For an excellent example, listen to the pair of irresistibly light-footed gavottes of the sixth suite. I defy you not at least to bob your head.) She tends toward too slow in the tempi of allemandes and sarabandes, for my taste, but thankfully not as wearingly as in Cédric Tiberghien's recording of Bach partitas.

Probably the complete recording by Christophe Rousset is the one to own, if you can have only one, at least judging by Rousset's other recordings. However, Angela Hewitt's Bach recordings, soon to be released as a complete set, mirabile dictu, are worth owning if you love clean yet warm performances of Bach. Her English Suites may not be the best in the set, but my ears thank me each time I play them.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Charles. I'm a big fan of Hewitt's, and I think you've captured her playing quite well here. She's definitely clean, even deliberate as you say -- also scholarly and poised -- but with no loss of color or warmth or humanity. Of the recordings of The English Suites I've heard (on modern piano), hers are currently my favorite.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Michael! I agree that on the piano, with a few exceptions, Hewitt wins.