Festival Music

Angela Hewitt

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

WITH a detailed and expert essay on the music in the programme, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt hardly needed to say a word to preface her performance, over two nights, of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, but her brief opening remarks on Monday proposed an approach that would transport the audience to her home rehearsal space.

The intimacy of her playing achieved that and much else besides, in a major Festival occasion, a milestone in the career of a musician who has done so much to introduce the modern audience to the music of a master.

At a time when playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as he might have heard it, through the work of scholars like the Dunedin Consort’s John Butt, is often the main thrust of performances, Hewitt is doing something entirely different, but just as crucial for our own age. Bach would have been baffled as much as flattered by the idea of his sequence of musical explorations being played in one five-and-a-half-hour sequence in a huge hall for so many people, but it may be the only way to appreciate his genius. These pieces, and particularly Book 2, played on Wednesday in an edition of Hewitt’s particular devising, were as much clarification of his own thinking and illustrative exercises for his pupils as demonstrations of the capabilities of a contemporary keyboard instrument. Played on a modern concert grand they become something else entirely: a masterclass in the building blocks laid down 300 years ago given all the benefit of 21st century expertise in the hardware and the skill and knowledge of the player.

And what a startling player Hewitt is, bringing a fresh approach to each change of key, mood and potential tonal nuance to every one of “the 48”. There is so much variety in them that it is surely sad we do not hear more of them individually, selected to complement other music. Remarkably few - the very first one and the lovely F Minor Prelude and Fugue that closed part one of Book 2 for example - are played regularly in concert, except as encores.

That this music continues to appeal to virtuoso players of jazz is no wonder, nor that parts of it still features in the learning of novice pianists. To hear it played with such dynamism and delicacy by one of the greatest players of Bach of our time was an enormous privilege.