Chamberfest: Angela Hewitt’s breaking down Bach with a musical odyssey

Angela Hewitt will perform two Bach Odyssey concerts this week. Photo Mai Wolf

It was cold day in Winnipeg when Angela Hewitt answered the phone to begin our interview.

The redoubtable Ms. Hewitt braves many things but the chill of a prairie winter was giving her pause. However she quickly warmed to the task of talking about one of her favourite subjects: the music of J.S. Bach.

It is back to Bach for Hewitt who has embarked on what she calls her Bach Odyssey, which features all of the master’s keyboard works performed in a cycle of 12 concerts.

There is no fugue fatigue here. There are only more depths to plumb. That’s the thing about the works of a genius … no matter how many times you study them, how many times you practice them or perform them, there is always something more to find.

“When I undertook to do the series, right at the very beginning, this was three years ago, I planned out the whole thing.

“First of all I had to know how many recitals it would be. There were obvious recitals like one for the Goldberg Variations, one for The Art of Fugue, one for Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier and one for Book 2. And then there would be one for all the toccatas and one for all the French Suites, which is the second concert in Ottawa on March 18.” There are six French suites which were written between 1722 and 1725 and were once said to be written in the French manner. But this is disputed.

“The Partitas I’m splitting over two concerts because you can’t play all six in one performance.

“Then the Inventions and Symphonies which are in the first program. These are the most standard basic pieces of the Bach Keyboard repertoire. I don’t say that in any pejorative way, it’s just those are the pieces that many people start with.

The rest of the first program, presented on March 16 includes some earlier works: “the two capriccios which I adore and the Aria Variata. Then I needed a good beginning and a good ending. So I put in that C minor fantasy which is short and allows late comers to come in after five minutes.”

The woman thinks of everything. And for the ending “I put in the terrific A minor Fantasia.”

This first concert features works Bach wrote for his children and students to practice upon.

“He was, like me, very practical. He needed pieces to teach his children, so he simply wrote them. At the same these pieces are also beautiful pieces of art. He never wrote anything that was uninspired.”

Having 12 concert programs made it easy for Hewitt to have on offer to concert halls three concerts a year over a four-year cycle. It makes for easy marketing. And a performer as busy as she is, is always thinking years ahead.

Ottawa will see all of these presented jointly by the Chamber Festival and the National Arts Centre. The third concert this year will be in Southam Hall in July as part of the Canada Scene festival.

When I interviewed her about the Bach Odyssey when the concerts were first announced last year, Hewitt said then she was initially somewhat reluctant to take on the idea, that had been suggested by the music director of London’s Wigmore Hall. She was embarked on other projects that were occupying her time.

But she said she thought about it and realized it could be done without compromising that other work. And now she calls herself “excited to be playing Bach again. I would never take on anything like this and do it superficially. I’m thrilled to be doing it. My only reservation when I took it on was that I didn’t want to be stuck only on that for four years and I’m not.”

Her schedule includes more work on a series of recordings of Scarlatti, finishing a cycle of recordings of the Beethoven sonatas and concerts all over the world.

The Bach Odyssey is well underway now. She’s played in London and New York. She’s enjoyed rediscovering works by Bach that she really hasn’t touched for 15 years.

For example, she has been reminded “what a great piece” the E major Capriccio (on the list March 16) is.

“The Odyssey has given a focus to my life over the next four years.”

She is also rediscovering her own younger self.

“As I go back and listen to how I played it … of course a lot of it comes out differently now, but a lot of it I think hmmm that’s really good, I had better play it like that again.

“I never let my standards drop. I hope that I am playing just as well now as I did 15 years ago if not even better. One constantly tries to improve to try to find the greater truth about what you are doing.

“As Chopin said at the end of the game you have to find simplicity but it takes a lot of work to get there.”

There is another aspect to playing Bach intensely again. He is demanding. Playing his music instills discipline, she says.

“That has always been the case. You develop a beautiful tone and clarity of playing;  rhythmic precision and the feeling of the dance helps you approach every other composer you play.

“I’ve always preached that in master classes. Playing Bach is the best exercise not just for playing the instrument but for understanding music and for the soul it’s not so bad either.”

It also is a comfort zone for Hewitt who was immersed in the music at a very early age by her father, the former music director at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa.

“I wish my parents were around to hear this whole thing. It would have given them a great deal of pleasure. I always think every day how grateful I am for the background I have in Bach and in church music and just about being a good musician from the beginning because it really helps you with this stuff.”

Outside of the Bach Odyssey, Hewitt runs a mini-music empire that sees her playing dozens and dozens of concerts every year while running her own music festival in Italy every summer.

“I’m busy, more than ever. People have no idea about the administration side. Just logistics of getting yourself around the world for 100 or more concerts a year.

“Then when you get there they want you to attend luncheons and dinners and all you want to do is practice and sleep. Sleep would be nice.”

To perform in Winnipeg, she flew all night from London, Eng. with a stop in Toronto.

“People only see surface which looks glamorous, but the work is tremendous.”

Still, she’s not stopping.

“These are still my very best years and I want to make use of that.” She does, though, try to take a break every August and September to rest, to practice and to dream up more projects.

Tomorrow: More with Angela Hewitt on other projects including a premiere in Ottawa in 2018. Watch for Natasha Gauthier’s review of both concerts in the Artsfile.

The Bach Odyssey

Recital 1 (Dominion Chalmers United Church, March 16 at 1930 ET.)
Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906
Aria Variata “alla Maniera Italiana”, BWV 989
Fifteen Two-part Inventions, BWV 772-786
Fifteen Three-part Sinfonias (Inventions), BWV 787-801
Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother, BWV 992
Capriccio in E major, BWV 993
Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904

Recital 2 (Dominion Chalmers United Church, March 18 at 1930 ET)
French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812
French Suite No. 2 in C minor BWV 813
French Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 815
French Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817
French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814
French Suite No. 5 in G major, WV 816

Recital 3 (Southam Hall, National Arts Centre, July)
Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826
Sonata in D minor, BWV 964
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828

Recital 4
Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827
Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 829
Partie in A major, BWV 832
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830

Recital 5
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Nos. 1-24

Recital 6
The Goldberg Variations

Recital 7
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
Nos. 1-24

Recital 8
Toccata in C minor, BWV 911
Toccata in G major, BWV 916
Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910
Toccata in E minor, BWV 914
Toccata in D minor, BWV 913
Toccata in G minor, BWV 915
Toccata in D major, BWV 912
Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903

Recital 9
English Suite No. 1 in A major, BWV 806
English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807
Suite in F minor, BWV 823
English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894

Recital 10
English Suite No. 4 in F major, BWV 809
English Suite No. 5 in E minor, BWV 810
Sonata in D major, BWV 963
English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811

Recital 11
Four Duets, BWV 802-805
Eighteen Little Preludes, BWV 924-928,
930, 933-938, 939-943, 999
Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 944
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971
French Overture in B minor, BWV 831

Recital 12
The Art of Fugue

For tickets and information about the first two recitals: chamberfest.com; for information on Recital 3, nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.