October 29, 2005

Bach Her Way

Angela Hewitt's Berlin Début


Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations


Angela Hewitt - Piano

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Bach Her Way

Angela Hewitt's Berlin Début

by Nancy Chapple / Photo: Jens Paape

Angela Hewitt performed last weekend in Berlin for the first time. Her solo recital of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the St. Matthäus-Kirche am Kulturforum was presented by the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, with whom she performed a Mozart concerto on the evening before and after.

She started the Aria in an active - almost hectic - pace, the ornaments in the right hand set off slightly from the steady bass. A bit of pedal warmed the transitions between chords. Typical of her entire interpretation of the work, the playing was pianistic - clear, ringing, almost lush, glorying in the sound possibilities of the modern instrument.

Certainly, any comments on the sound Hewitt created need to take into account the acoustics of the venue, St. Matthäus-Kirche am Kulturforum, a church built in the mid-1840's, rebuilt in 1960 in an austere, even frugal style. The lighting was harsh, the brilliant white wall surfaces unadorned except for modern depictions of the crucifixion. The sound in the room was similarly exposed and harsh.

The Aria and 30 Variations are each composed in two halves. Hewitt chose to take all Bach's repeats - an act which makes huge demands on the performer's (and the audience's) concentration, bringing the playing time up to over an hour and a half. The work is constructed with a fast variation followed by a slow one and then a canon. She did not play the fast ones particularly fast; the slow ones - with the exception of the deliciously slow high point of the second half, No. 25 in g minor, she took in a moderate tempo. Thus the bulk of her individual stylistic choices fell to the canons, which she savored. With an evident joy in the complexity of the voices, she played the canons as ruminations, rhythmically precise but allowing herself unusual individual choices in terms of coloring and mood. The technical prowess and ease with which she took on the most difficult passages - those composed for an instrument with two manuals - were impressive throughout.

Angela Hewitt

Other interpreters play the French overture in Variation 16 in a dramatic and taut way, rolling the chords slowly upwards and exaggerating the double-dotted rhythms. Her interpretation was less thundering, more intimate, a joyful G major. In the fast variations of the second half, the playing was sparkly without being showy. Each note spoke and fit into the larger line; the sound was a very present and tangible piano sound - never ethereal or dreamy.

Over the last few variations she drove the piece to a riotous high point, sending the audience to its feet after they had spent most of the work with eyes closed, faces in repose. That was because she found: a huge range of colors and a depth of expression in Variation 27; a way to play the trill-like figure in the middle voices in Variation 28 so it truly formed a background; an ingenious doubling of the on-the-beat pillars of harmonic sound to create organ-like grandeur in Variation 29; and a glorious full sound for the Quodlibet in Variation 30, composed to two simple folk tunes, one about "cabbage and turnips".

Her interpretation was not like late Gould - a comprehensive web of tempo relationships threaded through the entire work, nor like early Gould - a series of unique, showy character pieces. She found an interpretation very much her own. The word whimsy kept occurring to me - not quirkiness or eccentricity, nothing truly foreign to the work. And yet ideas of her own that - in her Spielfreude (joy in playing) - she seems to have wilfully decided to include.

The highly concentrated audience of about 250 people broke into thunderous bravos, as if they wanted to show they were indeed awake.