Review: Angela Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey Part III sets a fast and furious pace

Angela Hewitt. Photo: Bernd Eberle

Angela Hewitt presented the third installment in her multi-concert Bach Odyssey series at Southam Hall Thursday night. The program included three of the six Partitas along with the D minor keyboard sonata.

Hewitt’s 1997 recording of the complete Partitas for Hyperion was almost universally praised. I was curious to hear her take on them 20 years later, Many musicians revisit works through their careers to put a fresh spin on them. As people evolve as artists and human beings, so do their interpretations. But anyone looking for a dramatic shift or unpredictable new insight from Hewitt’s Partitas would have been disappointed. They sound much as they have for two decades and more.  

Hewitt has legions of fans, but her style isn’t to everyone’s taste. The exaggerated, knobby articulation, the preference for hotshot tempos, the florid ornamentation can make her interpretations sound cluttered and busy, like grandma’s china cabinet. Her sound is consistently narrow and lean, bone-dry even in warmer passages.

The Prelude from Partita No. 1 in B-flat major started things off at a brisk clip, a pace that seldom let up all evening. Hewitt’s attention to the clarity of Bach’s counterpoint is unrivalled, but this doesn’t always translate into a clear expression of the individual movements’ characters. The Allemande was impressively dextrous but mechanical, the phrasing never soft or elastic. The Sarabande had no languor or delicacy.  The cross-handed Gigue was taken so ludicrously fast that Hewitt even tripped over her own fingers.

The C minor Partita fared better. Here the pianist seemed less rigid, leaning more into the phrases. The opening Sinfonia was grand and stately; in the Allemande she lingered on details instead of rushing by. The Sarabande’s melancholy temperament and soft form contrasted nicely with the haughty, angular Rondeaux.

Hewitt’s best playing came in the D minor Sonata, a showpiece of Baroque keyboard virtuosity and versatility. The plangent Adagio led into a vigorously enunciated Fugue, dazzling in its multilayered clarity. The Andante was tenderly presented, and the final Allegro was performed with blazing impulsion.

Hewitt ended the program with the supersized D-Major Partita. Here her fabled architectural lines were not always so clean. She drove the tempi hard throughout, slurring some finer details in the fugue section of the Overture. The Courante in particular seemed more frantic than buoyant.

Dressed in festive Canada 150 red, the pianist addressed the nearly full hall before offering an encore of the D major fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a small taste of a future Bach Odyssey recital.

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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.