Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 17 November 2014

Art of Fugue Angela Hewitt

Bach: The Art of Fugue
Anglea Hewitt: piano
Hyperion CDA67980 (2 CDs)

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The end of a long journey, but hardly a valedictory summation. Angela Hewitt has been recording Bach’s solo keyboard works for a long time, and an advert in the liner here tells us that a 15-CD set is now available covering pretty much the rest of it. She’s not the only pianist to leave The Art of Fugue until the end, and like so many of her predecessors, she is able to bring a wealth of experience to its many interpretive challenges. The results are impressive, and very much within the idiom she has established: lyrical, flowing and elegant, but propulsive too, and always keenly focussed.
As ever, Hewitt performs on a Fazioli piano. It is the perfect instrument for her touch, accentuating her precision and grace, and offering warmth, but never bombast or excessive weight. For all the elegance of her approach, there is often a stark simplicity to her tone production and phrasing. Compared, for example, to Sokolov or Feltsman, everything seems very up-front: phrases are shaped with dynamics, but there is never any sense that the music is coming from, or receding to, some nebulous or opaque background. Even at the quietest dynamics, she favours directness. In fact, Hewitt is more often looking at the bigger picture, with the shaping of movements more explicit than of phrases. She will often build up to thundering dynamics for a climax, all the time retaining her even tone and clarity of voice leading. But even more impressive is the patience with which these climaxes are prepared, often so gradual as to be barely perceived until the later stages. It’s certainly a Romantic approach, but achieved with such discipline and authority that it is likely to win over many with more ascetic tastes.
The character of each movement is securely established by the rhythm, tempo and articulation of each opening statement. The balance between contrast and continuity is weighed more toward the latter, but even so, a distinctive atmosphere and temperature is chosen for each movement, however subtle the differences. There is also a feeling of progression through the work as a whole, with some movements taking on a transitional character for the sake of their neighbours. One surprise early on is the climax to the Second Contrapunctus, which seems to overwhelm everything we have heard so far, as if the First was leading up to this. Such nuances of weight and balance continue as the work goes on, all small but welcome surprises.
On the second disc, the four canons appear between Contrapunctus Nos. 13 and 14. This separates out the final movement, allowing Hewitt to give it a different character, more reflective and introverted. Or, at least, that is how it starts, but as its Bach spins his contrapuntal intrigues, Hewitt adds weight, through both tone and attack, to dramatically shape the movement. After which, we hear the chorale Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, which C.P.E. appended to the first edition – a welcome gesture towards closure, especially in Hewitt’s compassionate reading.

The sound quality is good, with the piano miked closely, but still retaining some warmth. The accompanying literature is exemplary, and is dominated by a detailed essay by Hewitt herself detailing the contrapuntal and harmonic structure of each movement. The many fans of Angela Hewitt’s Bach won’t need a recommendation from me, but enthusiastically recommended nonetheless.

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