Angela Hewitt, who is recording all of Bach’s keyboard
works on piano, has proven to be one of the most inspired interpreters
of his music. This set features the Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part
Sinfonias (on Inventions), as well as two fantasias, which are among
some of Bach’s finest works for keyboard.
Hewitt has shown, in all of her Bach recordings, that
she has a rare capacity to get to the heart of the music. She plays
Bach intuitively, yet in her own inimitable style, and, while not everyone
may appreciate her approach, she is always interesting and puts a great
deal of feeling into her recordings. Yet, here, a different facet of
Hewitt’s style can be heard.
The Inventions and Sinfonias are "little"
works; written originally for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, to teach him
the basics of phrasing, articulation, touch, rhythm and fingering, as
well as two-hand independence. These short pieces are often overlooked
by pianists and harpsichordists, and are considered minor works. Short
pieces, most ranging from less than one minute to under two minutes
(there are only three exceptions, all among the Sinfonias), these are
tiny jewels that show some of the basic techniques that Bach used when
writing for the keyboard, yet set them in melodic masterpieces.
While originally written for harpsichord or clavichord,
like all of Bach’s keyboard works, I feel these are among those that
work best on piano. Their percussive nature stands out better on the
piano, and their rhythmic effects seem to come through more clearly.
To stray for a moment, I like ice cream very much.
Living in France, where artisanal ice cream can still be found, I love
to go to little glaciers and try their homemade ice cream (with
the awareness that nothing can better the ice cream from Berthillon
in Paris). When I go to a new ice cream shop, I always try the vanilla
first. For what could be more basic than vanilla ice cream? It is the
primordial flavour, and, if it is not good, then other flavours are
usually not good either. Well, with Bach’s keyboard music, I feel the
same way. Bach’s vanilla is the Inventions and Sinfonias, and if a performer
does not play these well, it is not a good sign for the rest.
Listening to Hewitt’s recording of these works, it
is clear that one should go on and listen to the rest. Unlike many recordings
of these works, she treats them as real music, not as exercises. From
the very first invention, her flowing rhythm takes control of the piece
and leads in through its subtle, yet savant counterpoint. Her tempos
are rapid without being fast, and her phrasing always sounds just. The
4th Invention in D minor shows a perfect balance between the two parts,
and well-constructed dynamics. The slower Inventions, such as no. 6
in E major, no. 9 in F minor and no. 11 in G minor all show that she
is in perfect control of the delicate dynamics of her instrument, and,
fortunately, she uses the sustaining pedal with great parsimony, avoiding
the muddy sound that it would bring to these pieces.
The Three-Part Sinfonias, or Inventions, feature the
same quality of playing. The difference here is that these pieces have
an additional melody line in them, making them slightly more complex.
Some of them are trios, others fugues, but all of them feature the same
style of contrapuntal melodies as the two-part inventions, yet go just
a bit further. In Sinfonia no. 2, with its delicate ornamentation, Hewitt
plays effortlessly, as the music flows on perfectly. The E flat major
Sinfonia, no. 5, with its riffs of tinkling notes sounds lovely, though
here the piano tends to muddy the sound just a bit in the more complex
parts of the piece. The long F minor Sinfonia (at 3.57, the longest
piece in the set, and the only one over 3 minutes), is, as Hewitt points
out in her notes, "the emotional high point, with its bleak harmonies
and agonizing chromaticisms". This piece sounds as though it does
not belong in this set; its form and rhythm are very different from
the rest. Hewitt plays this as a masterpiece, approaching the solemnity
of the final fugue of Bach’s Art of Fugue, or some of the profoundest
pieces in the Well-Tempered Clavier.
This recording also includes two Fantasias - the C
minor fantasia and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. The former is a
forceful work, the latter a brilliant display of virtuosity and quirky
chromaticism. Hewitt shines in both of these pieces, as on the rest
of the recording.
You would be hard pressed to find a better piano recording
of the Inventions and Sinfonias, and with the two Fantasias thrown in,
this set is as close to perfect as they come.