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Bach: The Toccatas
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Angela Hewitt returns to her beloved Bach with this stunning disc of some of the great master's most joyous keyboard music. The toccatas are youthful, improvisatory, virtuoso works, composed in the aftermath of Bach's trip in 1705 to Lübeck to hear the great Buxtehude (he travelled for ten days on foot to get there), perhaps the greatest organist of the time. Buxtehude was a master of the stylus fantasticus a very unrestrained and free way of composing, using dramatic and extravagant rhetorical gestures; the influence of this technique can clearly be heard in the seven keyboard toccatas Bach composed sometime between 1705 and 1714. Angela Hewitt's Bach playing has won unanimous praise from all quarters for its rhythmic vitality, tonal clarity and poetic warmth. This is another outstanding issue in what is widely recognized as the benchmark modern recordings of Bach's keyboard works.
CD OF THE WEEK (THE SUNDAY TIMES) 'Her performances could hardly be more stylish or impeccable, more vital or refined; and, as a crowning touch, Hyperion's sound is superb' (Gramophone) 'Exquisite playing ... This disc reinforces Hewitt's position as one of the supreme Bach interpreters and provides the ideal entry point for newcomers to her' (Music Week) 'Interpretations of the highest quality ... For sheer virtuosity she makes us hold our breath at the combination of clarity, dynamic variety and structural comprehension, which is faultlessly conveyed' (Musical Opinion) 'This album is now the benchmark recording of these works on the piano' (Goldberg) 'imaginative and exciting performances' (The Observer) 'Angela Hewitt's intelligent virtuosity, stylish command and uncluttered musicianship not only serve the composer well, but also prove how vibrant and expressive the toccatas can and should sound on the modern concert grand' (BBC Music Magazine) 'In Hewitt's hands [the toccatas] evince a molten quality that places the listener in close proximity to the act of composition' (International Record Review) 'She succeeds remarkably in giving each work a differently slanted emotional colour, while every detail emerges with glittering definition ... a fine disc' (Pianist) 'faultless articulation and sensitive phrasing' (Classic FM Magazine) 'She proves once again that she is an exemplary exponent of Bach s keyboard music on the piano, making these complex pieces flow with uninterrupted inspiration' (The Independent) 'Like the music itself, the performances brim with that improvisatory spontaneity that is the hallmark of this player s style' (The Sunday Times) 'There is much brilliant playing here ... the total impression is of interpretations that are superbly performed, clean, clear and serious' (International Piano) 'interpretations that are first class from beginning to end' (Fanfare, USA) 'This disc is a delight from start to finish, a disc to lift the saddest of spirits' --(BBCi)
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The 2005 Gramophone Guide gave this CD the top "Gold Star" rating (3/3 stars) and concluded: "Her performances could hardly be more stylish or impeccable, more vital or refined. Hewitt's playing is personal and characterful without resorting to self-serving or distorting idiosyncracy." Moreover, the Penguin Guide summarized this recording this way: "We have no hesitation in declaring this the most stimulating and rewarding CD of these complex and episodic works on any instrument, consistently showing Bach's youthful explorations at their most stimulating."
Indeed, there is much variety, inventiveness and drama in this music that Angela Hewitt brings out to the fullest - from the songful and even contemplative slower interludes to rippling demisemiquaver scales that open some pieces to the powerful, complex fugues. Perhaps the richest aspect of Hewitt's playing here is her ability to skillfully and subtly shape the repeating episodes within the fugues by her nuances of color and dynamics. Many of these fugues have short themes that Bach incessently repeats throughout the piece (a famous trait of Bach that he is able to pull off to great effect). With most composers or playing, such repeated motiffs would quickly become monotonous or grating to the ear - as some Toccatas can be on the harpsichord as Hewitt points out. But, with Bach's skillful contrapunctal writing and Hewitt's imaginative playing, she transforms these repetative fugal sections into music of wonderous appeal and fascination - building an unfolding drama within the piece to great effect. The G-minor and D-minor Tocattas are fine examples of how Hewitt's subtle touches transforms these incessent fugues into lumanscent wonders.
One recording of the Toccata in C-minor that is quite interesting by comparison is that of Martha Argerich. While not noted for her playing of Bach, Miss Argerich in the early 80's put to disc a dynamic performance of this Toccata (along with a Partita and English suite on DG). Where Ms. Argerich's bold performance reminds one of Bach's legendary powerful tone and command, Hewitt's touch is worlds apart in its subtltry, charm, inflection and nuance. Hearing Argerich's version along side Angela Hewitt's performance helps to illuminate Miss Hewitt's style more clearly - which is one of longer, more-lyrical flow with a notably beautiful tone and something intangible that might be best called a "heartfelt quality." Hewitt's C-minor Toccata exudes a more songful flow and subtle artistry compared to Argerich's more punchy and "intellectual" reading. Actually, Hewitt's reading can easily be described as "pretty" by comparison (perhaps too pretty for some). She is always a pianist and utilizes the greater expressive range of her Steinway to achieve maximum emotional qualities and tonal beauty.
So, overall, Angela Hewitt's Toccatas are at the top of the class as Penguin Guide and Gramophone notes. With repeated listening, it has become a favorite of her entire discography - part for Bach's fascinating composing and part from Hewitt's sparkling and full-of-life pianism. Compositions - 5 stars; Performance - 5 stars; Sound quality - 4.5 stars.
To form a better opinion of these recordings I had to listen several times with maximum attention. So now I can write more about the two Hewitt discs, the Bach Toccatas (comparison: Glenn Gould) and the Italian Concerto etc. disc.
The latest development in Bach pianism (and also in playing Beethoven Quartets) is that perfect technique is not an unreachable goal but an obvious point of origin. Looking at today's greatest Bach master, Koroljev, he reached , we believe, unsurpassable perfection exactly this way. To achieve this, several months of seclusion and monastic concentration is required.
Hewitt is also among the giants. Different from Koroliev, she doesn't worry about one-hundredth of seconds, but instead we are rewarded with an increased joy of life. This is Bach we dream about, we know about but couldn't attain. Koroliev's Bach is heavenly, but Glenn Gould's Toccatas are examples of a deeply involved and serious savage subjectivity.
Hewitt knows that seriousness is not the voice of passion. Homage, but not worship. The piano toccatas lead us into a different world than the organ toccatas. The organ toccatas in spite of all their grandeur are still just organ pieces. The piano toccatas, however, are stylized; they are like suites and serious tests of endurance. This CD is the opposite side of the Capriccios, but Hewitt's both sides are wonderful. She understands the Bach spirit completely. She is not hammering, but not too light hearted either. Has weight, but not heavy like of the previous generation, say Brendel. Just as much as needed. Maybe this is her real strength.
The strengths and weaknesses of Hewitt’s interpretation can be heard clearly in the E minor Toccata (track 4, BWV 914). The Toccatas are constructed from alternating episodes, made up of fugues, meditative slow passages that serve as contrasting sections, sometimes in the proud “French Overture” style, and virtuouso passages built from flourishes showing off the performer’s technique. The E minor Toccata characteristically ends with a fugue constructed of running sixteenth notes, a section that is instantly recognizable as Bach. Hewitt plays this fugue with some panache. But the rest of the Toccata, such as the severe opening, tied thematically to the concluding fugue, is undernourished. The meditative Adagio that occurs a bit later in the piece is presented in a restrained, even dull fashion.
I compared Hewitt’s performance of the best known of the Toccatas, in C minor (track 1, BWV 911) with Martha Argerich’s on DG. Argerich presents a dramatic and sweeping version, with her characteristic brand of intensity. In contrast, Hewitt is a bit listless, selecting tempi that are considerably slower. Hewitt chooses to take the beautiful central fugue, built out of the C minor triad, slowly at the beginning, a long-standing and successful strategy in playing Bach’s more severe fugues. So far so good, but that strategy usually involves a gradual build-up in intensity as the textures and re-introduction of the main subject become more complex. Hewitt doesn’t achieve such an increase in intensity, both here and in the related concluding fugue. The superiority of Argerich’s exciting and involved interpretation I think is pretty obvious.
The disc isn’t helped by what I consider a regrettable performance of the D major Toccata (BWV 912). The sloppy execution here indicates that Hewitt and the producers should have bit the bullet and done another few takes. This Toccata is tucked in at the end of the disc as track 7, which isn’t called for by the work sequence number and indicates that the producers knew full well they were releasing a substandard track and wanted to hide it in the back.
Sound engineering is very good. Despite this, I am rating this 3 stars both because of the hum-drum nature of Hewitt’s playing found here and an unsatisfactory D major Toccata.
She plays cleanly and accutrately, but what adds to the beauty is how improvisational she sounds; and we know the Baroque masters excelled at improvisation.