Hewitt plays the Goldbergs

Angela Hewitt: Bach Goldberg Variations
Royal Festival Hall
29 April 2009

There’s something extraordinary about any live performance of the Goldberg Variations. Renowned as a cerebral and emotional marathon, the work generates its restless electricity long before any playing actually begins. Yet the opening Aria is so unassuming, modest and ins∂ouciant that it’s very difficult to know what to do with all the energy that has been building up inside of one. Never has such a slight, unspectacular courtly dance been subjected to such intense scrutiny.

These factors are exacerbated when the pianist is Angela Hewitt, certainly among the greatest living Bach interpreters and associated very particularly with the Variations following her ten-year-old Hyperion recording of the work. Back then Hewitt used a Steinway, but following her defection to Fazioli, her gift for extracting the maximum expressive range from narrow technical parameters has grown even greater, or at least found a more grateful recipient.

This was evident right from the opening of the Royal Festival Hall concert. Without ever troubling the continuous to and fro of the Variations, nor deviating from the steady increase in tension that underpins the work’s sequential unity, Hewitt appeared to have free reign to explore any expressive detours that might turn up along the way. The second variation was as joyfully teasing as in her recording, the beginning of the third much more so before the various threads of its canon became more deeply entwined, offering a glimpse of the journey to come.

Some variations, such as the unhurried ninth and the thirteenth, were simply exquisite, the appoggiatura sequence in the second half of the latter quite breathtakingly tender; others were explored with more risk, such as the majestic 16th where the high drama and internal rhythmic contrasts were explored to the full, and the grand, almost Beethovenian 25th, whose fierce dissonances stabbed and pulled at the breathless audience.

There were times when the fingers became a little bit flustered – for example, in the tricksy arpeggios of the 20th variation - but never did this affect the overall shape or sense of what was being communicated. The flashy 29th, the one variation where Bach’s specification for a keyboard of two manuals really puts pianists at a disadvantage, was exemplary, taut yet immense; the final variation was rich, full of resolved passions and appropriately measured joy.

Playing from memory, with all repeats, Hewitt held the audience in spellbound silence long after the Aria’s reprise had reached its modest end. When at last unleashed, however, the crowd’s adulation was simply enormous, and justly so.

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