Chamberfest: Hewitt prepares to wrestle with The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II

Angela Hewitt is back in Ottawa on another leg of her Bach Odyssey. Photo Keith Saunders.

The two books known collectively as The Well-Tempered Clavier were published in 1722 (Book I) and 1742 (Book II). Together they are considered among the most important collections of music ever written.

Of the two, the second book is considered the more challenging and frankly is probably more important if you need to make such a determination between the two masterpieces. Both contain 24 preludes and fugues. Bach probably never thought anyone would ever play either book all at once in a concert. But he probably never reckoned with Angela Hewitt.

Hewitt has been on an odyssey of concerts featuring all of Bach’s keyboard works and is past the halfway point. This past summer she played Book I of the WTC. This week she’ll tackle Book II in a Chamberfest concert on Oct. 18.

It’s a good thing her foot, while still sore, is pretty much healed. Her physiotherapist has told her she doesn’t need to see him anymore.

“It will take a while before I can forget about it, but it has regained strength at least,” she said in a phone interview from her Italian retreat.

She’ll need to focus her energy.

“I have performed Book II quite a lot this season already. Book I is big enough and wonderful enough, but Book II is an extra half hour of music. The preludes are more substantial. The fugues are more dense especially in the second half. It is so much more demanding. I think I always knew that but I feel it even more so now. It’s demanding technically, physically and emotionally. You need to call upon more resources to perform it all at once. But it does reward you amply.”

Get ready you who are attending the concert this week. This is a three-hour marathon. Each half is roughly 75 minutes long. Really it’s two concerts in one night.

“There is a 30-minute intermission which I need and the whole audience needs,” she said.

Book II is one of the major pinnacles of Hewitt’s climb up Bach’s mountain of keyboard music

“Both programs of The Well-Tempered Clavier are wonderful. Of course, the Goldberg Variations is a thing in itself as is The Art of Fugue, which will come at the end of the cycle in May 2020. But (Book II) is one of the pinnacles.”

“Bach never expected it to be played all at once. It is not like it is one work. It is 24 pieces each made up of a prelude and a fugue, so it’s really 48 pieces and you have to find the character of each one. That is one of the main challenges in it.

“When you are playing it as a whole, you have to find a way to make your way through it and keep the audience interested and find where the peaks are in the cycle. I think you play some of them differently in the cycle as opposed to playing them individually.”

Because the size of the concert is tremendous, she has to prepare.

“I eat before. I eat during the interval and I eat something at the end although I’m usually more exhausted than hungry then. I make sure I eat a decent meal of carbs and protein. My favourite concert foods are sardines, avocados, rye bread, bananas and berries. I make sure I have all those things back stage.

“I also make sure I have water beside me on the stage during the concert. It was funny when I played it at Wigmore Hall just recently, they knew they had to have the water there and before I went out I asked if it was there. They said yes and then I came out, bowed, sat down and there was no water.

“I said to the audience, ‘Excuse me they have forgotten something very important’ and I walked off and said to the backstage crew ‘Come on you guys’. Then I had to make a second entrance to even more applause. I was damned if I was going to play 75 minutes without a sip of water,” she said with a laugh.

It was a new guy backstage.

On the day of a Book II concert she doesn’t do much. She will rehearse for about an hour to make sure her Fazioli piano is OK.

“You need to save your energy for the moment.”

Her approach to Book II is to bring out the emotional highlights. In the  second half of Book II, “I have always felt this is hardest segment to bring off because if you play at all drearily, the pieces die. You have to put a lot of energy and imagination into it to make them come off the page.

“It’s there. It’s not that Bach didn’t provide it for you. You have to recognize it and bring it out in the way you play.”

Bach’s music is “quite orchestral, it’s much more than just keyboard music.”

Another aspect of the music in Book II is its modernity, she said.

“That is one of the most amazing things about it even though it was written (376 years) ago. I was playing it for somebody who didn’t know anything about classical music and they just would never have guessed it was written so long ago. They thought it was quite modern.”

In January, Hewitt will be back for another Chamberfest performance this time of Bach’s toccatas.

She said she is starting to get the Toccatas into her fingers now.

“I have played Well-Tempered Clavier a lot in my life; 10 years ago I played it 110 times around the world. Book I, I had under control in 10 days. Book II took about two months because it is so much more complicated. I haven’t played some of the toccatas since I recorded them about 15 years ago.

“They are pieces that I have played quite a lot in concert. They are wonderful performances pieces. The C minor was on my Deutsche Grammophon recording back in 1985. It is one of my party pieces. There are some in the seven toccatas that aren’t so well known, so I am starting to relearn them. They all give me huge huge pleasure.

“They have two different sides to them. Each toccata has separate sections and some sections are improvisatory. In these, there is a great deal of freedom in what you do. Then there are very strict passages where the rhythm is important.

“You have to find a way in each piece to relate these different sections and make a whole of them. I teach them often in master classes because they quite popular with students.”

Hewitt says she feels this is one of the most attractive programs of the Odyssey especially as it ends with the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor “which is a big party piece of mine that I have played since I was 15. That one I can play in my sleep.”

This week’s concert is the seventh in the Odyssey with five more programs left.

“I am happy to do it, but it is a bloody huge thing. I know that it will end June 2020 then I will take some months off because I think I will deserve it then. I hope people appreciate it for what it is and enjoy the experience of hearing all this wonderful stuff in such a short period of time.

“It’s good for me because I am revisiting it all. Now I think it will stick for life. I won’t be able to tell students that I haven’t done a piece for awhile.”

She also feels that she will be able to be more selective about what she plays in future.

“I can pick and choose what I want to play for rest of career. It has been a great thing really. It is nice to come back to something and feel that you understand it better and play it better and you have a different take on it. I am working with the greatest music ever written, what’s not to like.

“That is especially true with The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II. Because of its abstractedness, or whatever, it lends itself to a deeper exploration. It has such depth to it.”

Angela Hewitt plays The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

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.