Playing Bach with elegance



Victoria Concert Hall/Thursday

Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is one of the great Bach interpreters, so not surprisingly she performed Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works, as she did in her previous recitals here. She had played the Goldberg Variations in 2001 and The Well-Tempered Clavier in 2008 at the same venue to ecstatic acclaim.

This time, two of Bach's six Partitas got an airing.

Playing Bach on a modern piano is no longer a contentious issue. That pianists as diverse as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Andras Schiff and Hewitt could be equally persuasive in their own way shows that there is no single prescribed method of showcasing the great German's music.

Hewitt's Bach is elegant and tasteful, articulated with freshness and vitality. She proved it yet again, bringing out a rich, pearly tone on a Fazioli grand piano specially flown in from Italy.

The multi-movement Partitas were originally designated as keyboard exercises and these series of antique dances offered an unending source of invention for the performer to revel in.

The short and slender First Partita In B Flat Major made stark contrasts with the monumental Fourth Partita In D Major. Hewitt chose to play all the repeats, with some ornamentation - effective and never overdone - to vary the course. The fast dances were unerring in detail while time stood still in the slow and ruminative Sarabandes.

Then at a meditative point of the Fourth Partita, a toddler on his mother's lap in the front row threw a tantrum, shouting: "I wanna go home!". With him yelling all the way to the exit, the magic of the moment was irreparably sullied.

While one does not expect an outright ban on children at concerts, parents should exercise common sense in choosing suitable performances for their offspring. Toddlers simply do not belong outside of Babies Proms.

To Hewitt's credit, she did not flinch and completed the Sarabande before launching into the fugal Gigue with stunning aplomb.

Not to be type-cast as merely a Bach specialist, she offered further contrasts in the rest of her recital. In five Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the piano was imaginatively transformed to sound like strumming guitars, hunting horns and a military band with drums and fifes, with myriad colours and shades to match.

The three movements of Ravel's Sonatine combined varying degrees of classical restraint, French impressionism and Belle Epoque aesthetics. The transition from the staid Minuet rhythm of the slow movement to the finale's brilliant whirlwind also summed up the recital's variety.

And the playful final number in Chabrier's Bourree Fantasque was a joyous return to the recital's earlier dance theme, this time with French modal folk influences and dancehall gaiety thrown into the mix.

Very loud applause yielded two sublime encores. First, Debussy's Clair De Lune and then it was back to Bach in the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'Playing Bach with elegance'. Subscribe