Review: Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey begins with some good and some not so good

Angela Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey — her globetrotting, four-year exploration of Bach’s complete works for solo keyboard — brought the pianist to Dominion Chalmers this past week, co-presented by Chamberfest and NACO. The first installments contained some attractive scenery, familiar features, and one or two surprises. (A third Odyssey concert will take place this July in Southam Hall with the rest to come over the next few years).

In the mid-’90s, the incomparable Luc Beauséjour presented Bach’s complete works for solo harpsichord in an intimate Montreal recital venue. Collectively, that series remains fixed as some of the most memorable live music I’ve heard in my life: not only technically virtuosic but imaginative, exciting, charismatic, emotionally generous and poetic. You would expect a splendid Fazioli concert grand to overshadow a harpsichord, yet I found Hewitt’s performance overall to be the less colourful and grandiose of the two.

For her first concert on Thursday, Hewitt offered an assortment of fantasies and capriccios, anchored around the complete two-part Inventions and three-part Sinfonias. All the Hewitt hallmarks were present, both good and bad.

The focus on clearly traced counterpoint, the crisp rhythms and incisive attack, the silvery tone, the tasteful ornamental flourishes all supported Hewitt’s reputation as one of the world’s great Bach interpreters.

On the flip side, there could be too much emphasis on architecture and mechanical detail — the compositional gearworks, if you will — to the detriment of the bigger musical picture. The bouncy, clipped, phrasing Hewitt favours often robs her playing of gravity and weight. More uncharacteristically, her much-vaunted powers of articulation and precision seemed off; there were flubbed trills, uneven dynamic control, irregular accents, and rushing tempi (Hewitt didn’t play completely from memory, but occasionally referred to an iPad score.)

The Aria Variata, a precursor to the great variation sets of Bach’s later years, received a dignified and courtly reading. The Inventions came across as earnest but tepid (admittedly, even for a Bach lover, they make for pretty lightweight fare when played back to back). The Sinfonias made a much more satisfying impression. Hewitt’s smart approach was to present them as a connected cycle, almost foreshadowing the Chopin Préludes, with the austere, chromatic F minor Sinfonia as the central movement.

The cantata-like Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother delivered mightily on descriptive charm and gallant panache. It shared the title of recital highlight with the great A minor Fantasia and Fugue, in which Hewitt achieved majestic pipe-organ effects.

Saturday night brought the complete French Suites and more inconsistencies. No. 1 in D minor opened the evening in stately fashion, and No. 2 in C minor had some exceptionally fine playing (a beautifully spotlighted ascending left-hand minor scale in the Courante comes to mind.) But the gorgeous No. 4 in E flat Major cried out for a more tender, sensual and fluid touch. The Gigues were all tackled with flair and daring — the No. 5 in G major made for a brilliant ending to this leg of the Odyssey. But except in the B minor suite, the Sarabandes lacked that feeling of elasticity and suspended time that makes them so rapturous. On the whole, the performance never quite transformed into something greater than the sum of its parts.

This was clearly not the majority opinion. Ottawa adores their hometown heroes, and Hewitt can always count on an enthusiastic, starstruck reception from audiences here.  For her encore on the first evening, Hewitt chose the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, which she’s scheduled for 2018. On Saturday, she rewarded the audience with a spirited, percussive rendition of Rameau’s Le Tambourin.

Reviewed: Angela Hewitt Bach Odyssey 1 (March 16) and 2 (March 18) at Dominion Chalmers United Church.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, www.talesfromtheredchair.com. Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.