BACH Goldberg Variations. Hewitt (Hyperion) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Goldberg Variations
BWV 988, Clavier-Übung IV (1741)


[78:32] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Angela Hewitt occupies the same position today in Bach keyboard playing that Glenn Gould enjoyed a generation or so ago. Since winning the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition, she has been hailed in 1999 as “the Bach pianist par excellence of her generation” by The Sunday Times of London, and as “nothing less than the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come,” according to a 1998 edition of Stereophile.

In her recordings of the Partitas (Hyperion 67191/2 – 2 discs, full-price) and French Suites (Hyperion 67121/2 – 2 discs, full-price), Hewitt presents a style of Bach playing falling midway between period and old-style practices. She plays on a modern concert grand and is not afraid of using the shading and colors available on that instrument. She uses these resources sparingly and with taste, however, allowing the counterpoint and dance rhythms to predominate with telling effect.

Her interpretations are scholarly, well thought out, but not mannered or eccentric as Gould‘s recordings could sometimes be. There is an engaging sense of flow to Hewitt’s playing, as well as a sense of adventure and discovery, plus a love of Bach’s music that shines through every note. She is also an excellent writer, as attested by her scholarly, well-penned and thoroughly informative liner notes.

So now Hewitt comes to the Goldbergs, one of the colossi of keyboard literature as well as one of the summits of Bach’s compositional output. Bach somewhat modestly called the work “Keyboard Practice, consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations, for the Harpsichord with 2 Manuals. Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits,” and Hewitt quotes Gould, regarding this title, as calling it “a very down-to-earth description of such a great work.”

Self-effacing or not, Bach brings up a key point about this work by the title he chose. A top-flight performance of these variations will leave a listener refreshed instead of enervated, intrigued by Bach’s ingenuity despite the length that some performances can run, especially if all the repeats are taken. (Gould’s 1981 recording, taken without repeats, runs approximately 55 minutes. Konstantin Lifschitz’ live Moscow recital on Denon, with repeats, lasts nearly 80.)

While not the longest performance of the Goldbergs, Hewitt’s is certainly the most stimulating. If Martha Argerich’s Bach suggests candlelight flickering through a stained glass window, then Hewitt evokes a series of courtly dances. She articulates the rhythms of sarabandes, gigues and passepieds with a knowing ear and a graceful touch. There is a tenderness running from the aria through many of the variations, as well as depth of feeling and an occasionally playful quality. I have never heard Variation 23 played so infectiously – Hewitt calls it “a game of catch-me-if-you-can” between the right and left hands – while having the counterpart so clearly articulated.

Hewitt also does not rush the music. Of the different versions I have heard, hers is the most relaxed, allowing plenty of room for themes and counterthemes to interact and us to marvel afresh at Bach’s polyphony. She opens the second half of variations (Variation 16) slowly enough to fully articulate the theme and where Bach is going with it. This moment in Gould 81 goes by in a flurry of notes. Lifschitz’ tempo is better but he does not articulate the theme altogether clearly, so it seems more sluggish. Hewitt, by making the theme more clipped yet slowing the tempo, keeps the shape of the phrase yet gives it a distinguished air of pomp and ceremony.

There are two ways to play this music in terms of overall structure – either as one overarching span welded together with a general pace, as Gould 81 does, or as a wall of individual bricks held together by the mortar of a common theme, as Gould did in his 1955 recording. Hewitt takes the latter course, but instead of fragmenting the piece as Gould 55 did, she takes a more understated approach, playing up each variation’s individual characteristics while not losing sight of the big picture.

This approach also lends unpredictability to the proceedings, which Hewitt is only happy to oblige. Just when you think you know how she is going to play the next variation, she changes up on you, taking a different speed, giving a different shading, or enunciating the phrase altogether differently. She does this with good taste and refinement, lending a sophisticated yet good-humored twist to the piece. The approach is literally a breath of fresh air.

This spontaneity carries over to Hewitt’s treatment of repeats. Having played the Goldbergs in concert without repeats, she adds them here. As she points out in her notes, by adding the repeats, “I find [the work’s] impact immensely heightened, the architecture so much more evident, and the possibility for variations within the variations endless.” To this end, she gives the repeats an unending variety in dynamics, phrasing and coloration, adding intrigue to an already multi-faceted interpretation.

With so many positives, the only negative is a pair of extremely long pauses, one between Variations 15 and 16, and the other near the end of the work, just before the restatement of the aria. The intent is to let the notes fade and underline that one section of the piece has ended, another is beginning. This practice may work in concert performances, when the audience can tell from the player’s body language that more is coming. On disc, this practice can be disconcerting, especially if the listener is new to the work. Perhaps a few seconds less on each pause would have served the same purpose yet left less chance for confusion.

Even if you are a firm believer in Bach played on harpsichord, I would encourage you to try this recording. It strikes an excellent balance between period and modern-day sensibilities, transcending both by literally giving us the best of both worlds, and becoming far more than the sum of its parts. At the same time, Hewitt’s attention to specifics makes the Goldbergs seem newly written, and her playing gives the piece the best championship it has had in quite some time. Overall, this recording is not a document that any Bach lover can safely ignore.

Jonathan Yungkans has not been a Bach lover, but he is slowly coming around, so there’s hope for him yet.

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