Classical pianist Angela Hewitt has embarked on a marathon of epic proportions. Aptly titled the “Bach Odyssey,” Hewitt’s performance series will consist of 12 recitals over four years, in which she will be presenting all the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach.
Hewitt is one of the world’s leading pianists. She is at the stage of her career where she has her pick of repertoire, and she has an overwhelming schedule packed with performances and recordings. What made her want to revisit all of Bach, all over again?
Well, initially, she didn’t. But then the idea of completing Bach in a concentrated time frame changed her mind.
One could say she was born to do it: Her father was a cathedral organist and her mother a music teacher. She danced and sang and played piano, violin, harpsichord, and recorder to Bach. One of her earliest memories of Bach is of her father on the organ, his marvelous playing of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, something he then arranged for the whole family—eight hands on two pianos—when she was about 10.
“I was lucky I was born into the right household for sure, for playing Bach,” Hewitt said. Though the Canadian pianist has a vast repertoire, she has been playing Bach since the age of 4 and still finds more to bring to the pieces. Between 1994 and 2005, Hewitt recorded the complete works of Bach and was performing his works at the same time.
In 2015 she recorded the “Goldberg Variations” a second time, released with extensive and insightful notes on the music. She is an expert on Bach. “It’s a lifetime’s experience,” she said.
At 92Y, Hewitt will perform on Oct. 27 and Oct. 30, and again in April for the 2017 season. On Thursday, Hewitt revisits pieces she’s performed many times, along with ones she hasn’t performed for over a decade, bringing to the audience some lesser-heard Bach, like his capriccios. On Sunday, she plays the six “French Suites,” pieces she’s played all her life, and perfect ones to showcase the joy and dance of Bach.
Dancing With Bach
The thing about Bach, Hewitt said, is that you can appreciate the work on so many different levels. Someone who knows more about Bach and his work will delight in the perfect architecture and intricacies. His music is deceptively simple, Hewitt said, as Baroque composers wrote little more than just the notes—no instructions on how works should be played, making interpretation a scholarly endeavor.
But anyone can enjoy it, because the music is beautiful, moving, and emotionally cathartic.
“It’s music that speaks to everybody,” Hewitt explained, first because it’s beautiful, but also because of its roots. Bach is well-known for his faith and less so for his interest in dance, but both are major influences on his work.
A lively gigue, a stately minuet, triple-meter sarabandes, and the pastoral passepied—while much of Bach’s music was not written expressly for dancing, many titles imply a connection to French court dancing and incorporate the rhythms and step patterns of 18th-century dances.
Hewitt, who studied classical ballet for 20 years herself, said this is what she feels is most important in interpreting Bach—bringing out the dance.
“It has to sing and it has to dance,” she says of his music.
“There’s always joy in his music. I think that’s what you have to realize, the way the dance rhythms bring out the joy in life,” Hewitt said. “That’s really fundamental to his music. And to me, the best Bach interpreters are the ones who bring that out, … bring out the expanse and the depth. Because if you don’t, the music stays glued to the floor and doesn’t get up there!”
Much of Bach’s keyboard work is secular, but he is known for dedicating his music to God. “He wrote [it] for the glory of God and to refresh our spirits,” Hewitt said.
“I think that’s what makes [the music] very moving, and what takes us into a different world,” she said. “It was for him an expression of his faith. Whether he was writing sacred or secular music, it’s there. So it’s music with great strength and great conviction.”
And thus his music has deep spirituality, but it’s not something that necessitates a spiritual background to understand or appreciate. There is the conviction and joy and belief in eternal life that Bach puts into his music, and this is brought out through the dance rhythms.
“When you listen to Bach, it sounds still so vibrant and so alive and so meaningful to our time, I suppose because it brings us comfort and brings us a sense of joy, which we need, which as human beings we need,” Hewitt said. Hewitt often hears of people who put on Bach when they aren’t feeling the best, and many consider Bach therapeutic.
“It makes us feel better. It can change our mood. It can produce a harmony, in a life which is mostly discord—something that has a beginning, it has a development, and it has a satisfactory end to it, and so much in life doesn’t have a satisfactory end and finish.”
Over the years, Hewitt’s Bach has changed as well. She was perfectly happy with her first recordings of the entire “Goldberg Variations,” but found she had more to bring to a second round of recording nonetheless (this time on a Fazioli piano instead of a Steinway, which she feels enables more variations in her color and sound). It was released by Hyperion Records earlier this month.
“You change in your life, and everything in your life goes into your music. So I think, now, there’s a bigger sense of the dance. More joy, more color, more sense of flow. It’s a lifelong journey; it never stops,” Hewitt said.
“It’s a huge emotional journey because it’s very moving music, incredibly beautiful,” she said. “I think it deepens you emotionally as well.”
Hewitt, who never thought she would be performing so extensively as she is—and all over the world—said she hopes to communicate the joy of music, and her own enjoyment of it, to the audiences in an intelligible and intelligent way. More than to just play beautifully, she hopes to help people understand the music she plays.
After the Oct. 30 performance, Hewitt has recitals throughout Europe in November. She’s five sonatas away from finishing all of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, she’s recording Scarlatti, is set to premiere a new concerto with a Canadian composer, and is finding ways to collaborate more with the musicians she admires in her endless schedule. She has to make a concerted effort to find time for herself, as even a day off means spending eight hours practicing the piano. But she has an honest love for it. A day without playing the piano is like having an itch she can’t scratch.
“On a day I don’t play, I feel I haven’t expressed enough inside myself,” Hewitt said. “It’s a means of personal expression. We need to express emotion everyday; we can’t just keep it inside or be dead to that.”
“It’s been one of my instruments since the age of 3; the piano was always what I did best and easiest,” she said. “The piano has endless possibilities. It has the biggest repertoire, the most pieces written for it, so you’re a whole orchestra. You can create something all yourself, so it’s marvelous.”