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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Angela Hewitt: Lecture and Performance

DVD 1: Bach Performance on the Piano – An Illustrated Lecture
DVD 2: Angela Hewitt - Live in Concert
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828 (1726) [33:07]
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971 (1735) [13:38]
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in d minor, BWV 903 (1720) [13:02]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. factory, Fazioli Pianoforti, Sacile, Italy, 2007(?) (lecture), Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile, Italy, 2007(?)
HYPERION DVDA68001 [148:00 + 60:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Some artists make it really easy to fall in love with them. Angela Hewitt is one such artist. Grace, wit, ease and skill somehow come together in a way that makes for an immediate, visceral response to her music-making, in concert and on disc, alike. Not because she is a ‘more superior’ pianist - there are plenty of keyboard artists who have an ever greater technique or are more powerful, play a broader repertoire, or have more obvious flair. Instead it is because of an air she exudes that I guess to be a particular combination of musicality, integrity and the inherent joy she takes in it all.

As she seems to be tackling composers by letter - Bach, now Beethoven, Chopin, Chabrier, and Couperin, Ravel and Rameau - I follow with interest and delight, happily collecting her recordings and enjoying her recitals when I catch them. When I first heard her in the Goldberg Variations, at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, I even allowed the inner groupie to get out and go for her autograph. When I heard her – of all things – play the Brahms f-minor sonata, it was far-and-away the most enjoyable and impressive of all technically lacking performances I’ve witnessed. 

Now Hyperion has released a DVD of Angela Hewitt lecturing on “Bach Performance on the Piano” timed to coincide with her Well Tempered Clavier World Tour. Erudite, experienced, charming, and clearly one of the foremost Bach pianists of our time, who could be more qualified to talk about Phrasing, Tone, Articulation, Fingering, Pedaling, Tempos, Dynamics, Rhythmic Alterations, Ornamentation and Editions for and of Bach’s work? Or so I would have thought. 

But if you feel anything like I do about Hewitt, and you don’t want that to change: I must recommend you stay away from this DVD. Not that her insights on the topics above – which are the chapters into which the lecture DVD is divided – are not interesting and helpful to layperson and Bach-performer. Angela Hewitt’s scholarship is beyond reproach even where her opinions are strong and definitive. Would we really expect less from a performing artist? 

The entire effort is more the scholarly type, aimed at helping players improve their Bach skills, warn them of the pitfalls, coaxing them into performing Bach the “right way”. Those of us who do not hope to attain or regain the skill to play any but the most simple of Bach pieces will come away from this with a greater appreciation of what goes into a Bach performance. We are offered a glimpse into the complexities beyond the notes. The two and a half hour lecture probably achieves both. All the more lamentable is it that the production of this DVD is so amateurish in so many aspects. 

Filmed in the Fazioli Pianoforti factory - talk about product placement! - the camerawork is professional enough. Not so, the sound. Especially in the segment with Daniel Müller-Schott - who has recently released the Gamba Suites with Hewitt on Orfeo - the two artists’ voices, grunts, and vocal nods of agreement are all caught on the audio track well beyond what would be natural. Their painfully awkward interaction is enhanced by the absence of good editing. Stiff and shy, Müller-Schott comes across as a little, über-proper school-boy. 

But the worst element of this DVD is surely Angela Hewitt’s manner of speech. Everything seems overly rehearsed and all-too carefully prepared. It becomes increasingly ironic how everything she teaches and tells us about good Bach performance and which is amply present in her supreme Bach playing is precisely and obviously lacking in her skills of oratory. Like a student reciting a poem he or she has memorized, but never internalized, Hewitt’s lecture comes across as stilted and self-conscious. It is precisely the un-spontaneous nature of her phrasing, tone, articulation, and rhythmic alterations that is the detriment of this lecture. She is never relaxed, always achingly sincere in her modification and enunciation of the text. As a result, it feels denatured. A stock of ten different facial expressions is employed to underline points and ‘liven it up’. But the repetition becomes near comical. Eyebrows up, blink-blink-blink, head tilt, switch to the other side of her profile, blink-blink-blink, portentous pause. Da capo ad infinitum. Add to that that watching Mme. Hewitt perform from an up-close, frontal perspective, is about as appealing as seeing Cecilia Bartoli sing when the camera zooms in. Every note gets its own, felt expression. 

I don’t doubt for a second that Angela Hewitt’s expressions are anything less than 100% genuine – much like Bernstein’s, who just couldn’t help moving his entire body along when he conducted. But it can be rather distracting – even if Hewitt defends this as a necessity in playing music, quoting C.P.E. Bach to that extent, and declaring that anyone performing on the piano only from the elbows down could not possibly touch the audience’s emotions. Anyone who has ever been moved by a Rubinstein performance - and perhaps not by a Lang Lang performance - will want to shyly raise their hand in objection. 

“Carefully crafted chapters” on these various topics is what the back-cover promises – and it is what the viewer gets: all too carefully crafted, alas. Compare to that the relaxed, inviting, and charming, though no less opinionated, lectures of András Schiff on Beethoven’s sonatas (available on The Guardian Unlimited website). I was able to make it through the Introduction, “The Essentials”, “Interpretation”, “The Dance in Bach”, and the first few subsections of “Learning a Fugue”. After that I turned the picture off and merely listened to the audio track of “Ornamentation” and “Practical Advice”. Although that still didn’t turn Mme. Hewitt into an enigmatic speaker, it was a marked improvement.

For its educational purpose, this DVD might have its merit but especially as an admirer of Angela Hewitt, I cannot, indeed, must not recommend this DVD. It comes with a second DVD of filmed performances of Partita No. 4, the Italian Concerto, and the Chromatic Fantasy all expertly played and tastefully caressed as one would expect.

Jens F Laurson


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