Chamberfest review: Hewitt’s Goldberg Variations more monumental than magical

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

Pianist Angela Hewitt made her habitual Chamberfest visit this long weekend with two more chapters in her multi-year Bach Odyssey project. On Saturday, the Ottawa native played Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 2 will follow in October). On Monday evening, Hewitt performed the Goldberg Variations in front of a packed Dominion-Chalmers audience.

For all their ambitious scope and technical challenges, Bach’s set of 30 variations on a transparent, serene aria remain shockingly intimate, unfolding in ornate yet delicate layers, like the heart of a peony. As Bach left no indications as to tempo, phrasing, or dynamics, each artist is free to develop their own deeply personal interpretation of the Goldbergs, whether on harpsichord or piano.

Hewitt’s approach favours the monumental over the private. She gave us rhetoric, not poetry; her playing sermonized more than it sang.

The first iteration of the aria was gussied up with exaggerated detached notes and other fussy effects. Each subsequent variation was presented for maximum contrast, with no apparent overarching or unifying plan.

As is so often the case with Hewitt’s playing, articulation was meticulously controlled, dynamics less so. There were sudden, violent accents and erratic shifts in volume — for example, in the French Overture Variation No. 16, or the penultimate Variation No. 29, pumped up with added octaves in the bass — as if someone had suddenly punched a slider on a soundboard. This was amplified by the enormous, bellowing tone of Hewitt’s Fazioli concert grand.

That’s not to say there weren’t elements that also charmed and impressed: the flywheel élan of Hewitt’s sextuplets in Variation No. 26; her delicate, hummingbird-quick trilling in Variation No. 28; the moody, introspection of her playing in the Black Pearl Variation, No. 25 (here Hewitt’s slightly hurried tempo beautifully underlined the variation’s anxious chromaticism). But overall, theatrics and artifice won out over interpretative vision.

Hewitt ended the final Aria reprise with a long pause, her head reverently bowed over the keyboard, statue-still for 15 seconds or more, before signalling to the audience they could applaud (which her fans did, of course, with deafening shouts of “bravo” and “we love you”). If it had been spontaneous, it might have been spellbinding, but it’s a bit of unnecessary, calculated drama Hewitt has used before.

With Hewitt taking all the repeats, the concert lasted a little over 80 minutes, with no intermission.

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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, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.