There is perhaps no pianist today more closely associated with Bach than Angela Hewitt. Her recordings of his complete keyboard music for Hyperion continue to serve as benchmarks, and she is in the midst a four year tour performing that vast body of work in concert halls around the world, appropriately styled as the Bach Odyssey. Last weekend’s appearance was presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition, of which she is an alumna, having taken third prize in its 1979 edition (finishing behind another luminary, Jean-Yves Thibaudet). The recital took place in the Cleveland suburb of Berea, on the campus of Baldwin Wallace University – home to a conservatory that counts Cleveland Orchestra members amongst its faculty, along with a well-regarded annual Bach festival.

Angela Hewitt
© Richard Termine

The first three of the English Suites made up the bulk of the performance. As Hewitt noted in her historically-informed spoken introduction, the suites aren’t the slightest bit English, and in fact are stylistically some of Bach’s most French keyboard music. Structurally, they are a modest expansion of the allemande – courante – sarabande – gigue archetype, prefacing matters with a prelude and inserting a pair of lighter dances before the gigue (regrettably, the program books neglected to list the individual movements). The English Suite no. 1 in A major opened with a flowing prelude, an improvisatory-sounding warm-up for what was to come. Here and throughout, Hewitt’s use of the damper pedal was effective and deftly judged, evidencing her full commitment to Bach performance on the modern piano. The First Suite is unusual in including two courantes, the second of which was elaborated upon with two further variations, meticulously ornamented. A lively, rustic charm marked the bourées, and the gigue, taken at a moderate pace, demonstrated the pianist’s clarity and dexterity.

The Second Suite is certainly played more often than the First, its prelude here given a briskly vigorous workout – breathless yet still of carefully-crafted phrasings – before the stately allemande. Matters seemed all but suspended in the sarabande, music of great beauty and pathos, and Hewitt offered Bach’s notated embellishments (“les agréments”) in the repeats. The bourées that followed were quick-fingered delights, only outmatched by the frenetic gigue, rhythmically punctuated by its sharp accents. Sweeping dynamic contrasts opened the more darkly-colored English Suite no. 3 in G minor. Menuets were favored for the penultimate movement here, played with a simple elegance that truly danced – Hewitt studied classical ballet in her youth, perhaps giving her a natural affinity for these Baroque dances. The gigue made for a dramatic finish with Hewitt adroitly drawing out the intricate voices.

Two lesser-known works flanked the Third Suite, the first being a piece Bach likely never completed, namely the Suite in F minor, BWV 823. A deeply lyrical prelude opened, with touches of ornaments coloring a gently meandering melody. The sarabande proved to be the heart of the work, and the incessantly dotted rhythms of the gigue (in this case, fashioned as a canarie, named so for its origins in the Canary Islands) were wholly unhurried to close this forgotten gem. Concluding the printed program was the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894. Following a commanding opening, the prelude (which would later serve as the basis for the Triple Concerto, BWV 1044) was comprised of lively and conversant call and response gestures. A whirlwind of nearly continuous triplets made for a fugue of perpetual motion, with clarity never sacrificed for speed. Rameau’s “Fanfarinette” from the Suite in A minor served as the lone encore – a joy to the ears, and a light-hearted foil to the drama of the fugue that preceded.