JS BACH French Suites
Even the most out-and-out purists who blench at the thought of Bach on so alien an instrument as the piano (as if Bach himself ever showed any reluctance at transferring his work from one instrument to another!) will find it hard not to be won over by Angela Hewitt’s artistry. This Canadian pianist, eschewing all hieratic pretentiousness on the one hand and self-regarding eccentricities on the other, gives us Bach performances that not only are admirable in style but marked by poise and what used to be called a ‘quiet hand’: ‘chaste’ might not be too fanciful a term, so long as that does not suggest any lack of vitality. There is intelligence in her carefully thought-out phrasing and subtle variety of articulation: gradations of sound are always alive without their becoming precious. Her care throughout over the balance of voices is well exemplified in the Andante of the Sonata (a transcription of the A minor Violin Sonata, BWV1003), her forward impulse in its long fugue and her firm rhythmic control in the A minor Prelude and Fugue (which were later adapted for the Triple Concerto, BWV1044). The little preludes, written for the training of Wilhelm Friedemann (who may have been responsible for the transcription of the sonata) and other pupils, are treated with refreshing musicality, not at all merely as small technical studies. The alertness of the F major (BWV927) and the springiness of the E major (BWV937) are a particular delight.
The bulk of this recording is devoted to the French Suites (in which Hewitt includes a second Minuet in No. 2 and, more controversially, a Prelude and a vivacious second Gavotte in No. 4). I particularly enjoyed the lightness of her treatment of the Airs of Nos. 2 and 4, the vigour of No. 5’s Bourree and the freshness of No. 6’s Allemande; the extra decorations she adds in repeats everywhere sound properly spontaneous and are in the best of taste; ornaments are always cleanly played (though her mordents sometimes fall before, rather than on, the beat) and matched up in imitative voices. Personally, I think she was misguided in repeating the second D minor Minuet an octave higher, and some sarabandes are taken dangerously slowly – that in D minor preternaturally so, and the C minor for once tempting her into sentimentality. Nevertheless, altogether I can pay Angela Hewitt no higher compliment than to say that she brings to mind two outstanding Bach pianists of the past, James Friskin and my own teacher, James Ching.'