Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [89:43]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 2013, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
HYPERION RECORDS CDA67980 [42:11 + 47:32]
Angela Hewitt’s extensive booklet notes for this release open with her prevarication with regard to learning and performing Bach’s The Art of Fugue. “What I had heard of it never seemed to excite me very much. Neither could I believe that Bach in his final years had at last managed to write something boring.” This is somewhat like my experience with recordings of this work in the past. I knew there was something really special in Bach’s BWV 1080, but none of the performances I acquired were particularly inspiring, especially some of those venerable organ recordings. Of those played on the piano, Joanna McGregor’s (review) became my first choice after ultimately being left cold by Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Deutsche Grammophon recording, which had in turn taken over from Vladimir Feltsman on Nimbus (review). Cédric Pescia’s Æon set remains fascinating for its mixture of period tuning and romantic touch. All of these recordings have fine qualities and there are of course many more versions to explore, but Angela Hewitt’s now very much represents the top of the evolutionary tree. When it comes to Beethoven’s late piano sonatas I had the feeling that Igor Levit was giving us the ultimate ‘Software Update’ in opening the window on these works in terms of interpretative clarity. The Art of Fugue reaches comparable heights with Angela Hewitt, rendering Bach’s late enigma into something richly satisfying, deeply enjoyable, and movingly poetic.
Hewitt’s preparations included taking C.P.E. Bach’s 1751 publication blurb seriously when it says, “all the parts involved are singable throughout”. Hewitt’s learning process “involved singing each voice in turn and marking in the breathing points – which come at different times in different voices. There is no escaping that if you want it to make musical sense.” This vocal connection is an aspect which adds a core of naturalness and human expression to each piece, and goes a long way towards removing that veil of abstraction which sees so many performances beached and gasping for the juicy goodness at the heart of the music.
I’m not about to examine the whole thing in microscopic detail, but starting with Contrapunctus I you know you are onto a good thing from the outset. Hewitt’s tempo is unhurried, but her playing has a deep ‘swing’ which turns you on from the start. Just try clicking your fingers on the offbeat and you’ll soon feel the groove I’m on about. As with her Well-Tempered Clavier, Hewitt gives the music some rubato to go along with the rise and fall of the harmonic tensions, digging into the dynamics to create contrast without theatricality, delivering satisfying drama which is held elegantly in proportion. Vocal lines imply lyricism, but well-articulated rhythms are a feature of, for instance, Contrapunctus II, so we’re by no means wallowing in thick textures or suffering lack of contrast.
Finding oneself amidst such a wealth of superb ‘new’ Bach it becomes quite tricky to pick out highlights. Hewitt finds her inner Couperin in Contrapunctus 6 ‘in stylo Francese’, turning up the ornamentation and slowing the pace to add room for extra filigrees. The layering in Contrapunctus 7 per augmentationem et diminutionem is done with marvellous subtlety of touch, creating a complex and labyrinthine world through which you can allow your brain to wander while the banal outer concerns of clock time melt away. Complexity is sometimes engaged with brighter colours, the contrast of Contrapunctus 8 presenting a superficially more conversational touch, but once again generating a musical edifice which grabs your intellect, and which you let go only reluctantly. None of these pieces is given real tempo indications by Bach, but the sense of an interlinked structure and narrative pacing is omnipresent. Hewitt ups the pace in Contrapunctus 9 as the notation seems to demand, delivering entertaining virtuosity to go along with all the contrapuntal brain-food but by no means over-cooking the speed. This peak means that Contrapunctus 10 is something of a cooling-down for the end of CD 1, but the entrancement remains undiminished.
CD 2 begins with “one of Bach’s most terrifying pieces”, Contrapunctus 11, though you wouldn’t really realise this from the equanimity in Angela Hewitt’s performance. Bach’s remarkable chromatic solution to the musical thicket he had invented for himself seems to unfold with the naturalness of breathing – admittedly in long, spiral breaths which never seem to end, but still in arcs which can be followed to their logical culmination. We can sit in awe at Bach’s audacious reversals, inversions and general throwing around of his themes and subjects in Contrapunctus 13, but the dancing nature of the music is highly entertaining at the same time.
Making some comparison with Pierre-Laurent Aimard in, for instance, the Canon alla duodecima in contrapunto alla quinta and you hear the distinct difference in Aimard’s sterner, instrumental/pianistic approach in comparison with Hewitt’s vocal lines. I am in awe of Aimard’s technique and he can do wonders in terms of voice leading, but in the end the pieces become rather flattened out and less involving. Hewitt makes sense of that finely honed opening theme by giving it an inner ‘question and answer’ dialogue which echoes through the entire piece, with “beauty to be found in severity” in the mere two parts from which Bach engineers his invention. Going back to Cédric Pescia, and while he remains fascinating his playing isn’t beautiful in the way which makes Angela Hewitt’s so captivating. Pescia introduces some tricks, such as holding down the pedal to generate some unusual atmospheres at the start of some of the slow pieces, but these ideas don’t really hold much water as they have to be abandoned as soon as the other voices enter.
The final unfinished Contrapunctus 14 (Fuga a 3 soggetti) is the “great enigma”, but contains “some of the most beautiful and perfect part-writing in all the keyboard works of Bach.” Hewitt is sustained rather than really slow, the pace of the music keeping up an even, naturally breathing flow as the elaborate counterpoint unfolds. The music is left incomplete here as it should be: one of all music’s most poignant moments, with those final notes launched into the irrevocable infinity of silence. C.P.E. Bach’s solution for closing The Art of Fugue was to include the chorale prelude Wenn wie in höchsten Nöten sein, and this is what we are given here. As Angela Hewitt sums it up in her booklet notes, “there could be no ending more fitting than this.”
Do I have criticisms? It is a shame that this recording is spread over two discs, though at nearly 90 minutes this would appear to have been unavoidable. There are quite substantial silences between each piece, and while I appreciate being given the time to digest each one and prepare for the next, this does create an added aura of reverence and the feeling that this is being presented as a Precious Relic. You can perceive this as truth or feel it’s all a bit excessive, but again these respectful spaces are preferable to being hustled overly hastily from one piece to the next. I suppose you can’t have the one without the other.
Basically, what we have here is a reboot of Bach’s BWV 1080 which relegates pretty much every other recording on piano to ‘also-ran’ status. There are few enough ‘classic’ recordings which can justifiably be defended, and off the top of my head I can only really think of Charles Rosen (Sony Classical) in this regard. There are as many pianists which massacre the work than enhance it. You may for instance come across a 2014 recording by Antonio Palareti from the onClassical label which I have to say is a shocking travesty.
Pretty much worth the asking price for the booklet notes alone, owners of Angela Hewitt’s big Bach box set will doubtless see this as a compulsory purchase and will need no converting – something which you’ll find works both ways if you are only discovering Angela Hewitt’s Bach for the first time through this BWV 1080 as it will almost certainly leave you wanting more. This very special recording keeps the work’s enigmatic aura while lifting away its sense of desparate technicality and its feel of remoteness and academic dessication. The Art of Fugue emerges to become a thing of genuinely compelling beauty: something to inhabit and enjoy for a lifetime, rather than music to be heard with reluctant patience or dutiful awe.
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