Sabbath delight: Angela Hewitt interviewed on Bach, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and… baby hippos?!

Possibly Canada’s greatest living treasure in the realm of classical music is pianist Angela Hewitt. She has a huge and musically diverse repertoire (her recent recordings of Scarlatti sonatas are quite scrumptious), but is best known for her complete recordings of J. S. Bach’s keyboard works.

Here she is in Hong Kong in late 2018, giving a quite delightful interview to a local music professor for about an hour:

She talks about her background (her father was a British-born organist and choir director at a cathedral in Ottawa, her mother a pianist), about playing Bach on the piano, why she uses Fazioli pianos exclusively now, about her favorite preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (I’m not surprised C#m book 1, Bbm book 1, and F#m book 2 are among them). A few amusing as well as enlightening nuggets:

  • Because both Canadian and Bach, a comparison to Glenn Gould is inevitable. But she recalls seeing him on TV as a child, and asking her parents, “who is this kook?” Later on, she decided that, without detracting from Gould’s (staggering) musical talents, her vision of Bach wasn’t his, and that in particular Gould’s tempo choices were too eccentric and counter-intuitive for her taste. (It’s also hard not to notice that she’s as outgoing as Gould was introverted. She even once answered a fan note from yours truly :))
  • Her taking ballet lessons as a child helped shape her approach to rhythm in Bach, particularly the degree to which the rhythms of French courtly dances (quite explicit in the French suites, the orchestral suites, and the French Overture) come through in Bach’s preludes. The dance steps required notes inégales, rhythms that are more or less subtly syncopated even when written as equal notes. (Cf. “swing” and “boogie-woogie” in American popular music.)]
  • Similarly, being in a choir (her father’s?) since childhood gave her an appreciation of phrasing and articulation that you would not normally acquire from playing Bach on a piano (or other keyboard instrument) in isolation.
  • Her realizing during preparing for her then-current Bach concert tour (after a long spell of focusing on other repertoire), “there’s no bulls–t [sic] at all in Bach’s music”. By [bovine scatology], she means redundant notes or passages, “fluff”, “filler”. (As I understand it, a piece by Liszt, for example, will contain quite a bit of ornaments, flash-bang, musical “foley effects” that can be ad-libbed or simplified while still basically retaining the same piece. In contrast, everything in Bach is “just so”.[*])
  • How she was taught Bach (starting at age 3) by her parents in the same sequence she recommends for learners now: first the Anna Magdalena Notebook and the Little Preludes, then the Two-Part Inventions, then the Three-Part, then the French Suites, and only then the Well-Tempered Clavier.
  • How an important factor in deciding tempi for the preludes is “harmonic tempo” (her interviewer’s term), i.e., the frequency at which chords change. For example, the (in)famous First Prelude in C she takes comparatively fast as it only changes chords one to the bar (and she’d otherwise “be asleep by the time it’s over”), while the Fm prelude with many changes to the bar she plays more slowly and more expressively than many pianists.
  • My LOL moment: One of her favorite fugues is the long, ponderous, organ-like A minor from WTC book I, which she calls “my little hippopotamus fugue” [sic]. This is actually a reference to a Victorian musicologist named Ebenezer Prout, who, as a mnemonic device for the required articulation, put all sorts of droll lyrics to the fugue themes. A full list can be found here. For the A minor from Book One, it was : “On a bank of mud in the river Nile, upon a summer morning, a little hippopotamus was eating bread and jam.

Glenn Gould (whose correspondence is replete with musical jokes) clearly missed that joke, and instead played the fugue at a brisk tempo that is “rushing” for Angela’s taste, but brings out the relentless motorics of the piece. Here (via commenter “riverstun”) Gould discusses how he spliced together the final recording from two takes (out of eight) at the same high tempo, one of which he labeled the articulation as “pompous” and the other as “skittish”.

Sadly I could not find Angela’s performance of the same fugue on YouTube: suffice to say that in my iTunes music library, her recording runs for 5:33, compared to just 3:27 for Gould! (The great Tatiana Nikolayeva’s version, part of a single track with the prelude, I timed at 4:30.)

It is a marvel of the modern age that not only can we pull these contrasting performances up at the touch of a button, but we can even hear the performers explaining their artistic decisions. This is a luxury Bach himself (I nearly wrote Bach Himself, but that would be idolatry) could not have dreamed of in his lifetime, but would have been quite delighted with.


[*] exceptions that prove the rule are pieces like the 2nd movement of the 3rd Brandenburg, where Bach leaves a space for an improvised keyboard cadenza, or sections of the Chromatic Fantasy where performers are given sequences of chords to arpeggiate to their own taste.

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