So I saw Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt at the Orange County Performing Arts Center last night play all 24 of the preludes and fugures from Book I of J.S. Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.”
She played them all, one after the other, as in a trance. No sheet music, either. She had them memorized.
I am not kidding.
I was lucky enough to have fourth row seats just behind her, so I could watch perfectly her hands move up and down the keyboard.
She played a little over two hours straight from memory very difficult keyboard music; I was much fatigued by the end at having to concentrate so closely. At times there were four and five “voices” in the contrapuntal music, but Hewitt has only two hands — and only one brain. For her, it seemed more like an endurance contest. She had three full glasses of water next to her $165, 000 Fazioli piano, and she would pause every twenty five minutes of so and drink one down. And if this were not enough, Hewitt was going to play the Well Tempered Clavier, Book II straight through that next Sunday evening. I am sure she would do that from memory, also.
Knowing I was in the presence of greatness and an artistry of absolutely the highest level, I as much watched Hewitt play as concentrated on the music. It reminded me of once or twice when I have seen master actors playing Shakespeare: the person seems totally “in the zone,” absolutely absorbed. One had the sense that their brains were operating at a level most will never know. A person knew they were in the presence of great art.
Angela Hewitt’s interpretation of Book I I found to be… interesting. There were moments she was clearly in synch with the music, and then there were moments when she slowed waaaaaay down and threw me. She is a very sensual yet exact player, and I am more used to a more muscular (masculine?) way of burning through these preludes and fugues. For nearly twenty years I have András Schiff and Keith Jarrett playing much more according to Wanda Landowska’s famous dictum: “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play it Bach’s way.” I frankly like how Glenn Gould “goes off the reservation” and plays an idiosyncratic Bach that is as singular as its performer. The music almost seems as much Gould as Bach, but I like that. Hewitt, another Canadian, has been compared to Gould. But Hewitt did not capture me like Gould does.
Perhaps it is the fault of the technology – how we listen to music nowadays. Back in Bach’s day, one listened to all music live, with mistakes and a different interpretation each time. I have listened to two or three recorded versions over and over again on CD, and any mistakes or flaws were ironed out in the recording studio in those versions, never to be heard. It is a polished and “finished” version. Consequently, the expectations for a live performance are sky-high. I listened to a brief lecture by a music professor before the main concert, and I instantly heard and cringed at every little mistake he made in playing these fabulously difficult preludes and fugues; I am used to hearing studio recorded versions. I am used to hearing it polished to a high gloss and without obvious flaws. Hewitt is one of these world-class musicians whose live performances of even the most technically difficult music do not contain any mistakes of note, yet still I was a bit dislocated at hearing such a different interpretation of this music.
I am not passing judgment on Hewitt’s artistry. I am nothing but a rank music amateur. I am just trying to process the evening.
I will have to think more on it.
“She played them all, one after the other, as in a trance. No sheet music, either. She had them memorized.”