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Johann Sebastien Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2
Angela Hewitt, piano
Review by Evan Shinners

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  Pianists irreligious and faithful alike have their own bible: the two testaments of piano literature which cannot be ignored by any serious pianists and remain reinterpreted throughout life. The New Testament written by a Christ-like figure named Beethoven in 32 books (often called sonatas) is the outgrowth in passion and musical progress from the Old Testament, written by the ‘God' of music, Johann Sebastian Bach. Often this collection of 48 ‘books' is called the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each ‘book' is structured in two parts, a prelude and a fugue. The preludes are stylistic experiments, spanning different types of music, popular to intellectual, easily playable to virtuosic. The fugues are the didactic lessons. Each fugue is an example of counterpoint, an opportunity perhaps to teach Bach's own sons the art of composition. The Well-Tempered Clavier begins in C major, without sharps or flats, and like Genesis, springing from darkness to light, Bach creates the world of harmony step by step, measure by measure until, two pages later, we have been through a new world of harmonies both tense and free. This is Bach's creation myth, and after teaching a lesson in this key, he moves to the parallel minor, and later up one half step into C-sharp major and begins the major-minor mixture again until all 24 possible keys have been reached. This was Bach's way of teaching the art of composition, yet once wasn't enough. Several years after the first volume of preludes and fugues, Bach was at it again, creating another set and the most monumental preludes and fugues in music.

So who, you ask, is our Biblical scholar for this review? The pianist Angela Hewitt, who in 2008 released a new recording of both volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier on the Hyperion label. Certainly the challenge of Bach today is creating a fresh and interesting interpretation. Bach is a composer who may never sound the same twice, depending on how you play him. Bach's keyboard music is bereft of notation on dynamics, phrasing, articulation and, with a few exceptions, tempi. This gives the interpreter great freedom in approaching these pieces, and Hewitt makes use of the poetic license. She has enviable control, able to make each voice in the fugues speak with presence, and is able to convey the different popular styles in the preludes. I would advise not listening to the entire collection of preludes and fugues in one session, due to Hewitt's very plain tone and lack of variation of sound quality, but each pair is well done on its own. I was most impressed by her c-sharp minor fugue, notoriously difficult for its five voices and multiple themes, which she executes with ease.

This is a monumental task for any pianist, and while her earlier work is more diverse, this recording should be digested for anyone hungry for current events. Still, in the entire scope of Bach playing, the world would go on spinning without this recording, whereas it surely would have stopped cold without the fingers of Glenn Gould, Wanda Landowska -- or even Hewitt's own recording of the Goldberg Variations.

Hyperion's engineering is excellent, as usual for this label- accurate tonality and an impressively wide dynamic range.

Prolonged Ovation.

 

 

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