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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Six Partitas
Partita no. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825 [18:21]
Partita no. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 [20:52]
Partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828 [33:38]
Partita no. 3 in A minor, BWV 827 [19:42]
Partita no. 5 in G major, BWV 829 [23:05]
Partita no. 6 in E minor, BWV 830 [34:18]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 2018, Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy.
HYPERION CDA678271/2 [72:52 + 77:04]

This is Angela Hewitt’s second recording of Bach’s Six Partitas, the first from 1996/7 having been reviewed by Kirk McElhearn, and also reappearing in Hewitt’s big Bach box set which I reviewed back in 2010 and still keep close to hand in case my flat catches fire.

Angela Hewitt has re-recorded the Goldberg Variations (review) as well as the Well-Tempered Clavier in 2008, and each new version has yielded a layer of extra expressiveness and a certain added flexibility in terms of rubato. This is also the case with The Six Partitas as a quick listen to the Allemande of BWV 825 shows, with a more weighted placement of certain notes that ends up pulling the tempo around a good deal more than the 1996 recording. These are occasional trade-offs against what you’re used to rather than criticisms. Hewitt in her preamble to the booklet notes proper advises us not to “expect huge differences of Gouldian proportions. An Allemande is still an Allemande, a French Courante should still not be rushed: a gigue must remain danceable. Twenty years of life have intervened – twenty years spent practising his music, always trying to do better, to bring it to life even more.”

Following expectations, timings are a little longer in this new recording when compared to the 1990s set. Sarabande movements are a touch more thoughtful, but each of the minuet and gigue movements keep their dance energy, some even having been tightened up a little as time has passed. The order of the programme is the same, a sequence that works very well. The recording is set in a more resonant acoustic, which helps with the more lyrical feel in Hewitt’s playing. She still barely touches the pedal but there is a deliciously supple tension between the notes in a movement such as the Allemande of BWV 826 which is present in the older recording, and now enhanced with a fractionally more measured tempo in the new one.

As Hewitt herself indicates, there are no extremes or shocking surprises from one recording to the other, but the qualities of musical thought have evolved and are delivered with a sensation of quiet joy that is infectious. Hewitt records here on her own Fazioli piano, and the control and range of colour in her playing is reflected in response to a very fine and deeply familiar instrument. Another player who makes Bach sound utterly natural on a modern grand piano is Murray Perahia, and I had a listen to his Sony Classics recording of BWV 829 by way of comparison. The playing here is delightful and refined, tempi not dissimilar to Hewitt’s and with a comparable lightness of touch. Perahia’s pellucid Sarabande is hard to beat here, Hewitt’s rather slower tempo – almost six minutes to Perahia’s 4:20 – almost pushing the boundary at which Bach’s logic begins to break down. This is, however, a maximum contrast to the feeling of sheer joy in the music Hewitt expresses elsewhere in the work, and her performances are of the kind that always make you want to hear more, and hear again.

Does this new set of Bach’s Six Partitas replace Angela Hewitt’s previous recording? In many ways yes, but I still very much enjoy the slightly more astringent earlier recordings of all her Bach on Hyperion, so certainly will not be abandoning them. If there is a set to challenge Hewitt’s on a modern instrument then I would have to look towards Igor Levit on Sony Classics (review). Re-listening I was reminded of that subtle extra layer of romanticism Levit manages to give to his Bach – an expressive filter that still manages to retain a convincing Bach idiom. Hewitt is by no means dry in this regard, but her filter is one that, to my ears, takes us a touch closer to the composer as opposed to the performer. Just compare that magnificent Sarabande in BWV 830, to which Hewitt gives superlative poetic expression. Levit here is more compact in terms of tempo and is also excellent, but also seems to give more of the impression of a Liszt transcription in the way he spreads those chords. Who knows which Bach would have preferred, but for profundity of experience I’m casting my vote for Hewitt.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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