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Angela Hewitt Lectures Us on Bach

Some artists make it really easy to fall in love with them. Angela Hewitt is one such artist. Grace, wit, ease, and skill somehow come together in a way that makes for an immediate, visceral response to her music-making, in concert and on disc alike. Not because she is a ‘more superior’ pianist. (There are plenty keyboard artists who have an ever greater technique or are more powerful, play a broader repertoire, or have more obvious flair.) But because of an air she exudes that I guess to be a particular combination of musicality, integrity, and the inherent joy she takes in it all.

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Angela Hewitt, Bach Performance on the Piano, DVD
(released March 11, 2008)
Hyperion DVD A68001

As she seems to be tackling composer by letter (Bach, now Beethoven, Chopin, Chabrier, and Couperin, Ravel and Rameau), I follow with interest and delight, happily collecting her recordings and enjoying her recitals when I catch them. When I first heard her in the Goldberg Variations (at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington), I even allowed the inner groupie to get out and go for her autograph. When I heard her – of all things – play the Brahms f-minor sonata, it was far-and-away the most enjoyable and impressive of all technically lacking performances I’ve witnessed.

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Bach, Well Tempered Clavier, Books I & II

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Bach, French Suites

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Bach, English Suites

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Bach, The Six Partitas

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Bach, 2 & 3-Part Inventions, Chromatic F'n'F, et al.

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Bach, French Overture, Italian Concerto, et al.

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Bach, Toccatas

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Bach, Keyboard Concertos (vol.1 & 2)

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Bach, F'n'F in A minor, Aria Variata, Sonata in D major, Suite in F minor

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Bach, Goldberg Variations

Now Hyperion has released a DVD of Angela Hewitt lecturing on “Bach Performance on the Piano” timed to coincide with her Well Tempered Clavier World Tour. Erudite, experienced, charming, and clearly one of the foremost Bach pianists of our time, who could be more qualified to talk about Phrasing, Tone, Articulation, Fingering, Pedaling, Tempos, Dynamics, Rhythmic Alterations, Ornamentation, and Editions for and of Bach’s work? Or so I would have thought.

But if you feel anything like I do about Hewitt, and you don’t want that to change, I must recommend you stay away from this DVD. Not that her insights on the topics above – which are the chapters into which the lecture DVD is divided – are not interesting and helpful to layperson and Bach-performer alike. Angela Hewitt’s scholarship is (almost) beyond reproach, even where her opinions are strong and definitive. (And would we really expect less from a performing artist?) But her tone of lofty condescension and unwillingness to really accept anything but her own view of matters will be unbearable to many, if not most, viewers.

The entire effort is more the scholarly type, aimed at helping players improve their Bach skills, warn them of the pitfalls, coaxing them into performing Bach the “right way”. Those of us who do not hope to attain or regain the skill to play but the most simple of Bach pieces are to come away from this with a greater appreciation of what all goes into a Bach performance. A glimpse into the complexities beyond the notes. The two and a half hour lecture probably achieves both. All the more lamentable is it that the production of this DVD is so amateurish in so many aspects.

Filmed in the Fazioli Pianoforti factory (talk about product placement!), the camerawork is professional enough. Not so, the sound. Especially in the segment with Daniel Müller-Schott (who has recently released the Gamba Suites with Hewitt on Orfeo) the two artists’ voices, grunts, and vocal nods of agreement are all caught on the audio track well beyond what would be natural. Their painfully awkward interaction (stiff and shy, Müller-Schott comes across as a little, über-proper school-boy, eagerly and uncritically absorbing every word of the High-Priestess of Bach) is enhanced by the absence of good editing.

But the worst element of this DVD is surely Angela Hewitt’s manner of speech. Everything seems overly rehearsed and all-too carefully prepared. It becomes increasingly ironic how everything she teaches and tells us about good Bach performance and amply present in her supreme Bach playing is precisely and obviously lacking in her oratory skills. Like a student reciting a poem he or she has memorized, but never internalized, Hewitt’s lecture comes across as stilted and self-conscious. It is precisely the un-spontaneous nature of here phrasing, tone, articulation, and rhythmic alterations that is the detriment of this lecture. She is never relaxed, always achingly sincere in her modification and enunciation of the text. As a result, it feels denatured. A stock of ten different facial expressions is employed to underline points and ‘liven it up’. But the repetition becomes near comical. Eyebrows up, blink-blink-blink, head tilt, switch to the other side of her profile, blink-blink-blink, portentous pause. Da capo ad infinitum. Add to that that watching Mme. Hewitt perform from an up-close, frontal perspective, is about as appealing as seeing Cecilia Bartoli sing when the camera zooms in. Every note gets its own, felt expression.

I don’t doubt for a second that Angela Hewitt’s expressions are anything less than 100% genuine – much like Bernstein’s, who just couldn’t help moving his entire body along when he conducted. But it can be rather distracting – even if Hewitt defends this as a necessity (!) in playing music, quoting C.P.E. Bach to that extend, and declaring that any pianist performing on the piano only from the elbows down could not possibly touch the audience’s emotions. Anyone who has ever been moved by a Rubinstein performance -- and perhaps not by a Lang Lang performance -- will want to shyly raise their hand in objection. (Don't worry, she won't likely acknowledge you.)

“Carefully crafted chapters” on these various topics is what the back-cover promises – and it is what the viewer gets: All too carefully crafted, alas. Compare to that the relaxed, inviting, and charming (though no less opinionated) lectures of András Schiff on Beethoven’s sonatas. (Available to on The Guardian Unlimited website.) I was able to make it through the Introduction, “The Essentials”, “Interpretation”, “The Dance in Bach”, and the first few subsections of “Learning a Fugue”. After that I turned the picture off and merely listened to the audio track of “Ornamentation” and “Practical Advice”. Although that still didn’t turn Mme. Hewitt into an enigmatic speaker, it was a marked improvement.

For its educational purpose, this DVD – which comes with a second DVD of filmed performances of Partita No.4, the Italian Concerto, and the Chromatic Fantasy (expertly played and tastefully caressed as one would expect) – might have its merit. But especially as an admirer of Angela Hewitt, I cannot, indeed: must not recommend this DVD.

DVD 1: Bach Performance on the Piano – An Illustrated Lecture DVD 2: Angela Hewitt Live in Concert
Partita No.4 in D-major, BWV 828 (1726) [33:07]
Italian Concerto in F-major, BWV 971 (1735) [13:38]
Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in d-minor, BWV 903 (1720) [13:02]
Hyperion DVD A68001


Kenny Wood said...

I couldn't disagree with you more in certain areas here. Admittedly a die-hard Hewitt fan, I simply couldn't wait for the release of this DVD in my area and I certainly wasn't disappointed when I got it home and viewed it.

I would think if you're purchasing this DVD it's because for one you think that Miss Hewitt's Bach IS the right way (or more than likely you wouldn't have bought a DVD entitled "Bach performance on the piano"...Angela Hewitt). How then can her views and opinions be considered lofty or condescending if in fact her way is the right way (and in my humble opinion she IS right). One doesn't come to such a high level of excellence in their playing and musicianship through close mindedness. An incredible amount of hard work and years of absorbing as much knowledge as is possible (which includes weighing the opinions of others) go into forming insight which (at least is the case with her Bach) has earned her the deserved title of High Priestess.

Perhaps Miss Hewitt comes off somewhat unrelaxed while speaking but I find that even if reading from a prompter she's very well spoken and thoroughly professional in her manner (nor would I expect anything less from an artist who is the epitome of professionalism.)I read a review of this DVD recently that quipped about the lack of ers and ums and thought, "if that's what you want perhaps you should make your own video". I do, of course realize the point they were trying to make but at the same time thought it really going overboard.

I'm not sure what your point about seeing Miss Hewitt performing up close from a frontal perspective is nor do I see the lack of appeal in seeing Cecilia Bartoli sing (even when the camera zooms in). Angela Hewitt and Cecilia Bartoli are two incredibly beautiful women and were I either of them I'd certainly be flattered by the comparison to the other.

Having witnessed Miss Hewitt in recital I'm not sure how one could find her expressions or movements while playing a distraction. She's certainly not Lang Lang! (thank God). What does come through to the surface in this regard I feel to be the result of a genuine emotional response to the music. Playing the piano well (or any instrument for that matter) does in fact require that one play from more than just the elbows down. If you've internalized the music then it becomes something that's felt with your entire being and thus becomes an extension of you rather that just a projection. This is what C.P.E. Bach (and Miss Hewitt) are trying to imply...not the fact that you must move your body to play well but that if the music is part of you then chances are it's going to come through in a physical sense also. (I highly doubt that she'd not acknowledge that raised hand).

The only detraction for me were the fade outs that announced each new chapter. I think (as happened in one area) that the titles could have been inserted alongside the running commentary and provided a more fluid pace to things.

All in all I must say that this is definitely a worthwhile purchase and will certainly prove helpful to the teacher and student alike. Not nearly enough useful information is out there when it comes to Bach performance and I'm quite happy that no less an artist than Angela Hewitt has taken up the subject. The second DVD of live performances would be worth the asking price alone in my opinion. If you're a Hewitt fan (and hopefully one of Bach as well) then ignore the critics and add this to your library.

jfl said...

Assertion isn't the same as persuasion.

But perhaps you are right in as much as anyone who thinks that only Angela Hewitt knows how to play Bach properly would, indeed, be inclined to agree with her and enjoy this disc.

Anonymous said...

For «JFL»:
I think you have a very negative point of view; it is like you have a "zoom" for every little negative thing of Miss Hewitt "in your particular point of view" and you project certain hatred to this wonderful and interesting artistic lady.