Thursday 15 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Angela Hewitt at the Usher Hall, or, A Masterclass in Pianism

The last time I heard Angela Hewitt at the Edinburgh Festival (I'm pretty sure) was way back in the mists of time in 2002. On that occasion she was a substitute for Andras Schiff and performed the Goldberg Variations to a sold out Usher Hall as part of the wonderful Royal Bank Lates. I remember that concert for several reasons. I hadn't planned to go when it was originally advertised because I'd heard Schiff in several Queen's Hall recitals and hadn't cared for his style. Nor was I, then, very keen on Bach. But when the substitution was announced I thought I'd like to hear Hewitt live. I credit that concert with making me realise that Bach can be a rather amazing composer. So when the programme was announced for this year's Festival, these two marathon concerts of the complete Well Tempered Clavier were top of my list of things to catch. It proved to be a memorable experience.

Hewitt's programme note, matched to her approach to grouping in performance, proved very helpful to this listener effectively encountering the work for the first time - I recognised the occasional individual prelude and fugue, and the phrase that Kit and the Widow satirise as Lloyd Webber borrowing. Hewitt suggests that it is helpful to approach the preludes and fugues as groups of four. This gave shape to the evenings and assisted me to retain a sense of place within the journey.

The variety of the work is striking. From dashing, intricate rapid flows of notes to deeply felt introspective meditations. Fugues which wander into sometimes strange sound worlds, and tour de force exercises in competing lines building to grand conclusions. Hewitt commanded both the technical skill but also the emotional range to bring out all these differing colours and moods. Her programme notes were again helpful in suggesting clues to the ear for particular pairs - I was especially struck by the point about the notes of the subject of the fourth Fugue in Book 1 forming the outline of a cross lying on its side, and that the four notes of the Fugue subject of No.20 in Book II are also used in the same phrase in the aching "And with his stripes" in the Messiah.

In other hands I can imagine this epic work could feel like a long listen. But here, as in that performance of the Goldberg Variations, Hewitt led me to surrender completely to this sound world. It's remarkable the way that Bach's long interweaving lines seemed to take me out of myself. For most of both performances I sat with my eyes closed and enjoying the music just flowing around me.

Quite a few of us rose at the end to give a standing ovation (something regular readers will know I am very chary about granting). I walked out of the Hall on air after a wonderful, moving, memorable Festival experience.

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