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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Keyboard Concertos: vol. 1

Keyboard Concerto no.1 in D minor BWV 1052 [22:46], Keyboard Concerto no. 7 in G minor BWV 1058 [14:04], Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV 1050* [19:59], Triple Concerto in A minor BWV 1044* [20:07]
Angela Hewitt (piano), Richard Tognetti (violin)*, Alison Mitchell (flute)*
Australian Chamber Orchestra/directed from the violin by Richard Tognetti
rec. 4-5, 9 Feb 2005, Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia
HYPERION CDA67307 [76:58]

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Hyperion’s publicity for this set - I will be discussing the second volume shortly - describes it as "self-recommending". My immediate reaction was of a certain annoyance; I’ll decide whether it’s to be recommended or not. For once, however, the hype is true and indeed it would be impossible not to recommend performances so innately in tune with the spirit of the music. For our times, Angela Hewitt’s combination of a lively and never heavy touch, unassertive virtuosity, natural phrasing and wistfully expressive slow movements, corresponds to what many people hope to find in Bach. It is playing memorable for its poise, for its sense and its sensibility.

And yet, as Lewis Carroll pointed out so long ago, this is a slow sort of world in which it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. Has Angela Hewitt actually found something new or is she recapturing the sensible, musical interpretations of the best Bach pianists of the 1930s? In the intervening years we have witnessed the sublimation of the bizarre - Glenn Gould, wonderful at times but too often too wilful to be taken without a pinch of salt - and the sublimation of the dogmatic (Rosalyn Tureck). And then there’s all the paraphernalia of the authentic movement .... So here we are, back where we started.

Or are we? Let us compare the 5th Brandenburg with the famous old recording by the Adolf Busch Chamber Players and Rudolf Serkin at the piano, that recording was made in 1935 and currently available on an Andante compilation 69948 71986 2 3 [reviewed by me]. The tempo for the first movement is a shade slower chez Busch but it still manages to be buoyant, while Serkin’s pianism is quite extraordinarily luminous, every note a point of light, perfectly clear even though the recording does not attempt to give the piano any greater prominence than the harpsichord would have. His cadenza is a triumph of intellectual and emotional control. Good as Hewitt is, it would be idle to pretend that she has recaptured quite this magic.

On the other hand, the rest of the Busch performance contains features which date it and will surely never be revived. In the slow movement, Serkin doubles the bass line at the octave and it says much for his control that it doesn’t sound even heavier than it does. Busch’s portamenti and the flautist Marcel Moyse’s desire to dominate are high prices to pay for a reading which nonetheless plumbs the religious depths of Bach’s inspiration whereas Hewitt’s faster tempo remains charmingly on the surface. In the finale the Busch group’s insistence on reading the dotted rhythms literally in defiance of baroque practice - and even in the 1930s there were musicians such as the conductor Mögens Wöldike who knew about these things - makes for stilted results and Hewitt is obviously preferable here.

Another historical performance that came my way recently, by Carlo Zecchi and Italian Radio forces under Fernando Previtali (1938: available on a double CD tribute to Zecchi by Warner Fonit 5050466-3306-2-8 and reviewed by me) shows that a pianist with fine ideas was more likely to come to grief with his collaborators than he would today. This time the slower first movement seems four-square from the orchestra and only gradually takes wing as Zecchi’s own contribution becomes more prominent, culminating in a sizzling cadenza that uses less pedal than either of the other two. Throughout, the nervous intensity of Gioconda De Vito’s violin playing becomes tiresome. However, Zecchi and his team know about the dotted rhythms in the last movement, taken very swiftly, and this is a signal success.

So it would seem that Hewitt has recaptured some of the qualities of the older Bach players while avoiding their more dated features. However, I venture to suggest that luminous, sensible and sheerly musical Bach playing has always been available, even while the Goulds and the Turecks and the authenticists were calling the tune. I seem to remember some live performances of the kind by Moura Lympany. I think that Maurice Cole’s Saga recordings of the "48" might bear re-examination and I suspect that the forthcoming "48" from Joyce Hatto will demonstrate in some ways the continuity between the older pianists and a younger artist such as Angela Hewitt.

And for my last comparison I went to an off-the-air tape of the D minor concerto in which the young Maria Tipo was collaborating in Rome in 1962 with an elder statesman of the podium, the unforgettable and glorious Vittorio Gui. Here we find the same sort of lively touch and natural musicality we hear today from Hewitt; stimulated maybe by the presence of an audience, she and Gui present, in place of Hewitt’s poise, a more urgent sense of communication. The performance really takes wing at times. Still, the lesson remains that Tipo – a pianist not often heard on record but usually appreciated when she has been – could have recorded Bach on a large scale in the 1960s and 1970s with results not far different from Angela Hewitt. But perhaps people were not ready to listen to that sort of Bach in those days. Angela Hewitt does seem to have found a particularly responsive public among present-day listeners; clearly she is the right person at the right moment.

She also has the right collaboration from the orchestra and the engineers and writes her own very lucid notes, so this deserves to be another Hyperion hit.

Christopher Howell

Volume 2

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