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Angela Hewitt Gets to the Heart of Fugue

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J. S. Bach, The Art of Fugue, A. Hewitt
(Hyperion, 2014)
Pianist Hélène Grimaud was scheduled to open the season at Shriver Hall in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, but when the French pianist withdrew, due to a finger injury, it was Angela Hewitt who stepped in to save the day. We wish Grimaud a speedy recovery, of course, but it was hard not to feel that this change of events was an upgrade, meaning the chance to hear Hewitt play twice this fall -- she will play a Mozart piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra next month -- and to hear her play J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge, apparently the only time she will play the work live in the United States this season. Fortunately, thanks to the tendency of Professor Hewitt to lecture before she plays, my late arrival did not mean missing any of the actual music.

Hewitt gave a preview of her Art of Fugue at Shriver Hall in 2012, when she played the first four contrapunctus movements. Early in that year, Hewitt underwent an emergency surgery, and she wrote that following the procedure she did not touch the piano for over a week, coming back to practicing eventually by taking her first look at the score of The Art of the Fugue. Hewitt believes in the piece, which will be the capstone of her traversal of the complete Bach keyboard works for Hyperion when her new recording is released next month. The work has a reputation for being dry and cerebral, and a less skilled performance can make it live up to that reputation. Endlessly, infinitely complex, yes, but Hewitt brought out all of its warmest, lyrical qualities.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pianist Angela Hewitt performs Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue’ at Shriver Hall in Baltimore (Washington Post, September 23)
In the more intricate fugues, she applied considerable rhythmic freedom and sometimes slow, but not lugubrious tempi, to allow her to examine each thread of the tapestry, using rallentandi at the edge of excess to cue the listener to the approaching entrance of the subject. I have noted for some years the affinity of Hewitt, who once trained as a dancer, for dance movements, and she brought that love of movement to the notes inégales of Contrapunctus II and the gigue-like mirror fugues of Contrapunctus XIII.

The only place that the performance bogged down a bit was in the four canons near the end, where Hewitt's careful pacing and detail-oriented touch became a little too austere in the already spare two-part texture. Hewitt says of these pieces, in her extensive program essay, that "there is beauty to be found in severity, and we should let them speak simply without trying to add too much in the way of interpretation." Goal achieved. After that, though, she gave a religious, intense reading of Contrapunctus XIV that brought the performance full circle. Hewitt believes that Contrapunctus XIV is an incomplete quadruple fugue, whereas I am more convinced that Bach's inclusion of his own name-theme indicates that he intended to leave the final piece incomplete, with the understanding that the final piece of the puzzle, the weaving in of the main subject, is hanging in the silence, a gesture to the infinite. Despite her belief, Hewitt wisely eschewed the various possible completions of the final piece, letting the score come to an abrupt end where Bach's score does. In homage, she then played Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, the quirky chorale harmonization added to the final version of The Art of Fugue.

The next concert on this series will feature the Belcea Quartet (October 26, 5:30 pm), at Shriver Hall in Baltimore.

1 comment:

Gary said...

I thought this was delightful. The Art of the Fugue is generally easy to admire and respect, but tough to love. She made it a lot easier to love it.