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Review of Cambridge Music Festival: Angela Hewitt (piano) – Bach, Goldberg Variations

Maybe it’s something in the water in Canada that has produced not simply accomplished pianists, but such once in a lifetime giants of the keyboard as Glenn Gould, Marc-André Hamelin, Oscar Peterson and Cambridge Music Festival’s visitor in recital, the celebrated virtuoso Angela Hewitt.

Hewitt, an acclaimed interpreter of Bach’s complete solo keyboard works, played the Goldberg Variations in Trinity College Chapel on Monday to an enraptured audience.

Angela Hewitt. Picture: Bernd Eberle
Angela Hewitt. Picture: Bernd Eberle

Renowned pianists develop special relationships with their piano. Jazz legend Oscar Peterson, for example, referred to the instrument as his ‘wife’. Vladimir Horowitz’s Steinway (made so famous that it now tours by itself) accompanied the late maestro on public recitals all over the world, as well as to different recording studios. Angela Hewitt made news three years ago when, on just such a studio visit, her ‘best friend’, as she called her bespoke Fazioli concert grand, was accidentally dropped by its movers and damaged beyond repair. She reported that at the time the shock of its loss kept her silent about the disaster for more than 10 days – truly a personal bereavement.

Monday’s recital though had put such sorrow away. Seated at a gleaming Fazioli was a pianist at the very apex of virtuosity, at intervals passionate, joyful, melodic, lyrical, contemplative where required, and whose audience was made to feel and to share the sheer totality of commitment such glorious music demands.

This once seldom-heard work by Bach is a wonderful composition; first a ‘simple’ Aria, more or less attainable by a Grade 4 pianist, followed by thirty variations which, in terms of technical construction and melodic beauty, situate their composer in the very heart of the temple of human achievement.

The story of the Variations goes that a Russian diplomat to the electoral court of Saxony suggested to Bach that he write some keyboard pieces for a young musical associate, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play to him for relief of his nightly insomnia. The sleepless diplomat’s name has been more or less lost to history, but Bach’s Variations have made Goldberg’s name immortal.

The work had come to be known mainly through a recording by Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in the 1930s. But another recording was also made for RCA in 1942 by the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau who, like Angela Hewitt, was a great interpreter of the entire Bach keyboard works. Arrau had agreed with RCA to defer the release of his own recording in favour of the company’s new one by Landowska, partly because of his immense admiration for her, partly because he believed that the harpsichord was the more appropriate instrument. Consequently Arrau’s lay in the vaults of RCA until it appeared for the first time in 1988.

But by then the Goldberg Variations had already assumed much greater prominence with Glenn Gould’s sensational landmark recording of forty years previously (1955). A keyboard phenomenon, Gould would record them again in 1981. A video exists of him performing the work with his brilliant technique, and shows him at the conclusion of the performance very slowly and reverentially bowing his head while bringing his hands together as though in a prayer of thanksgiving to the composer.

These days there are at least 200 piano recordings of the Goldbergs, and about as many for harpsichord, to claim the attention of the average listener who can only gasp with astonishment as to how anyone can play the work, let alone have composed it.

Pianistic interpretations of major works are inevitably open to rivalry. The Goldberg Variations are no exception. But these so-called rivalries are usually the product of commercial recording interests, or created by commentators and reviewers. Many of the interpreting artists themselves stress how individual approaches reflect personal journeys and explorations which have little or nothing to do with professional competition. Rather like a chess board, it is the simple formal structure of the Goldberg’s initial Aria which then enables an infinite creative freedom available to each performer who approaches them.

On the title page of the original 1741 edition Bach writes humbly that the work was ‘composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits’. Like many of her ‘rivals’ and indeed like the greatest keyboard virtuoso of his own time, J.S.Bach himself, Angela Hewitt possesses breathtaking technique; but her recital on Monday evening, aside from the technical gifts that allowed her to deliver it, revealed the same emphasis that Bach placed on the centrality of the music. There wasn’t a single variation that Angela Hewitt didn’t enhance, throwing everything she had in her power at bringing each of the enormously demanding variations into the unified whole which is the work, while at the same time constantly discovering freshness in a masterpiece that she inhabits totally.

The standing ovation she received was prolonged and heartfelt.


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