Four Stars – Angela Hewitt Review in the Sydney Morning Herald

Bach’s Art of Fugue by Angela Hewitt

Musica Viva. City Recital Hall. October 12

Reviewed by Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October 2013Image

The last time I had the chance to hear a live performance of Bach’s The Art of Fugue in Sydney was when the late Norman Johnston played it in the opening season of Beckerath Organ in Sydney University’s Great Hall in the 1970s.

Though others may have scaled this austere peak since, Angela Hewitt’s performance on the piano over two recitals once again brought this apogee of musical thought to vivid life through sound.

Bach’s concept approaches the sentiment expressed in Thomas Mann’s great musical philosophical novel Dr Faustus that perhaps it was music’s fondest wish not to be heard at all but to exist in pure thought.

Bach did not indicate the intended instrumental or vocal forces, though with the exception of the “mirror fugues”, (Contrapunctus XII and XIII), it is playable by a single keyboardist without adjustment.

Hewitt’s achievement is to bring its abstract purity to memorable tonal embodiment by providing an emotional context that audiences connect with. This program took up where program one had left off with Contrapunctus XI, a rich four-part fugue inverting the themes of Contrapunctus VIII.

In the “mirror fugues”, Bach wrote pieces in which both the parts and the direction of melody can be turned upside-down, so that the bass of one version is inverted to become the soprano of its mirror. Hewitt gave the first pair sombre depth and the second scurrying vitality.

The four canons had distinctive expressive personality, before the final incomplete fugue on three themes.

It is generally believed Bach intended to introduce the Art of Fugue motto theme in as a fourth idea but the manuscript stops just as he is combining his name with the other two. Like Johnston, Hewitt allowed the abrupt cut-off to speak for itself, finishing with his final chorale-prelude “Vor Deinem Thron’ tret ich” and a somewhat overdone pause.

The first half opened with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in which Hewitt preserved spontaneity in the flourish and continued with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 110 (which also uses inverted fugues), in which she adopted a reverent, even sanctified mood, pausing and drawing back to emphasise expressive points.

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