It is a sign of the times that a celebrated Bach interpreter like Angela Hewitt should have begun her recital with a series of arrangements of Johann Sebastian’s music. While the art of transcription has always been a crucial part of musical practice, in the wake of the HIP (historically informed performance) movement of the later 20th century, these adaptations became regarded as aesthetically dubious and fell spectacularly out of fashion. Only recently have they begun to be rehabilitated, and audiences can again enjoy hearing how Liszt, Busoni and others reshaped Bach’s music for the modern piano. Hewitt chose three arrangements by Wilhelm Kempff, the most impressive of which was a virtuosic rendering of an orchestral work, the Sinfonia in D major. In the adapted chorale prelude, the long suspended notes had faded into silence on the piano before the resolution arrived, something which wouldn’t have happened on the organ, with its greater sustaining powers. Not that this was a huge problem; studies have shown that it is technically impossible to achieve true legato on the piano (because of the spectacular decay of sound after the hammer strikes the string), but any competent pianist knows how to create the illusion of a smooth melody line. And Angela Hewitt is so much more than that. Her trademark sensitivity of touch and warm tone was in evidence especially in the Siciliano, where the three distinct textures (intermittent bass notes, smooth semiquaver middle part, and upper flute melody) were clearly differentiated.

Angela Hewitt © Bernd Eberle
Angela Hewitt
© Bernd Eberle

The first half closed with Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 101, a late work which combines some hair-raisingly difficult passages with an emotional elusiveness that defeats many. The first movement is especially treacherous, but Hewitt made it seem easy through her ability to unfurl the phrases in such a way that they felt inevitable. The second-movement march was crisply articulated, and in the trio the two-part-invention texture was brought out well. In the brief third movement a marvellous balance was struck between momentum and stillness: it never felt rushed, but the logic of the phrase was always apparent. The manic contrasts of the finale were well captured, although maybe the occasional moments of slapstick could have been a little less dignified. Unsurprisingly, the voices were beautifully individuated in the fugue, and the busy counterpoint to the theme never sounded laboured.

The Art of Fugue represents unfinished business for Angela Hewitt. Not only was the work left incomplete on the composer’s death, but it was not part of her award-winning Bach discography. She confessed that, as a listener, she had thought the work “boring”, and noted (lamented?) the fact that there are no preludes to relieve the intellectual pressure. No question, it is a masterpiece, a contrapuntal tour de force even by Bach’s elevated standards, but even a connoisseur might prefer to take it in small doses. On her current tour of Australia, she has wisely divided the work into two, with the first ten parts featuring in this program. It’s still a hugely demanding experience for both performer and audience: ten fugues, based on the same theme and all in the same key, sounds like a recipe for wandering attention. Hewitt prudently took the time at the beginning of the second half to explain at some length the fugal devices which Bach employed, and drew attention to the different characters of the fugues. Not that Bach gives much away – there are no tempo indications, dynamics or expressive markings – but a study of the different rhythmic profiles and textures can form a basis for an imaginatively varied performance.

And imaginative it certainly was: parts were light and fugitive (Contrapunctus IX), others had real swagger (II), and still others were subdued (III) or wistful (X). The phrasing was delectably varied: for instance, slurs were effectively used in no. VIII, while elsewhere legato and staccato were deployed according to the needs of the moment. The individual lines (or “voices”) were clearly delineated and shaped in a way which made sense of the horizontal structure of this music. Hewitt is unafraid to take time for structural reasons: there were plenty of times where a slight pause or rubato demarcated one section from the next in a way that was very helpful to the listener (my only quibble was with the huge pull-up at the end of no. III, which felt excessive). Moreover, she refuses to treat the text as sacrosanct: she occasionally doubled the bass line in octaves in closing sections (for instance, in no. X). Save for a lapse in no. VIII, where a momentary derailment led to nearly two pages being skipped, it was masterfully controlled throughout, and left this listener hungry for the completion of the work in the next concert.