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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II

CD1: Preludes and fugues (BWV 846-869, Nos 1-12)
CD2: Preludes and fugues (BWV 846-869, Nos 13-24)
CD3: Preludes and fugues (BWV 870-893, Nos 1-12)
CD4: Preludes and fugues (BWV 870-893, Nos 13-24)
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 5-7 June 1997 (CD1); 17-19 December (CD2); 17-19 August 1998 (CD3) and 21-23 March 1999 (CD4); Beethovensaal; Hanover. DDD
HYPERION CDS44291/4 [56:38 + 59:55 + 72:34 + 74:56]
Experience Classicsonline

It is something of an honour for me to review this magnificent set of recordings, first released in 1998 (Book 1) and 1999 (Book 2) and now re-released at bargain price. The reputation of Angela Hewitt as a Bach interpreter of the highest order was first established in reaction to these performances, and they have received numerous international awards. It is, therefore, of little surprise that MusicWeb International lists the original releases as all time great performances of Bach’s music.
Having lived with Angela Hewitt’s lyrical and thoughtful approach to Bach for several years now, I welcomed the opportunity of revisiting her performances – particularly in the context of more recent efforts by some of our most revered pianists. Daniel Barenboim, more successful in Book 2 than Book 1, provides a unifying approach in which each set of works tends to emerge as an integrated and satisfying whole rather than a wildly eclectic range of colour and character - the antithesis of Glenn Gould! Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 475 6832) provides transparency and lightness of touch, but some may find his approach overly safe and somewhat lacking in interpretative gesture - although this may well be an advantage for some listeners. As much as I love these artists, it seems to me that Hewitt provides a better balance overall between respect for Bach’s score and artistic ownership.
Given the consistently high quality throughout, it seems a somewhat superfluous task to identify preludes or fugues of particular performance merit. Nevertheless, for listeners unfamiliar with the works themselves I suggest sampling Book 1 first. These works are, in the main, more accessible than those in Book 2. In Hewitt’s hands, the prelude and fugue in C sharp major are irresistibly joyful and dance-like. In contrast, the prelude in E flat minor is imbued with an aching sadness, a mood maintained in the companion fugue. For airy elegance, look no further than the prelude and fugue in F sharp major, or find poise and reflection in the prelude in G minor. Hewitt captures each mood quite beautifully, while at the same time respecting the wonders of Bach’s complex counterpoint.
In Book 2, Bach seems to have turned in on himself rather more, as if communicating a set of private thoughts. This does not indicate a dropping of standards. Indeed, these pieces are perhaps more ultimately rewarding than those contained in Book 1. However, for the uninitiated, I expect they may take longer (as a whole) to be fully appreciated. Like Barenboim, Hewitt is even more convincing in Book 2. Listen to how she manages the transition from the serenity of the prelude in C sharp major into the unexpected three part fughetta in the last few bars. The stillness of the prelude in C sharp minor is beautifully handled, but never feels like it’s about to fall apart - which, at the chosen tempo, it might well do in less capable hands. The thrilling Italianesque prelude in D minor, played very fast, could not be more different, but not a single note is out of place. The final prelude and fugue in B minor are both imbued with great warmth and optimism, with any sense of melancholia swept away in their wake. This is a quite wonderful and spirited way for Bach to complete this greatest of musical offerings, and handled with a profound sense of purpose by Hewitt. I have struggled to identify negative aspects of these recordings, but if pushed, I was occasionally disturbed by a tendency to slow the tempo at the end of some movements before providing an overly emphasized ‘finale’. But this is a very minor quibble about an otherwise magnificent and important set of recordings.
Peter Bright


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