Reflections on an evening with Angela and her Bach.

contributed by Lizzie Slattery, 2nd Year LANS student

Last Friday a group of LANS students and staff members attended an Angela Hewitt piano recital at the Birmingham Town Hall where she played six suites by Johan Sebastian Bach. Hewitt is arguably one of the most accomplished pianists alive today, having started her piano studies at the age of three in her home of Ottawa, Canada. She has since performed all over the world and is particularly known for her cycle of Bach recordings which took her over ten years to complete.

I am certainly no expert on classical music or piano playing and so cannot comment technically on the performance. However it appeared evident that Hewitt is a pianist of astonishing skill, and is deeply emotionally connected with the music of Bach. It is quite something to sit through six Bach suites, particularly if, like me, you are unaccustomed to doing so, and I sometimes found my attention wandering. It was always brought back, however, when I focused in on the music and listened to the weave of incredibly complex harmonies and rhythms which are constantly interacting in Bach’s music, as well as the dazzling gold dress she wore.

I asked some of those who attended to share their thoughts on the evening:

“Riveting. Ravishing. And Radiant. The whole performance was surreal. Angela Hewitt did not just play piano, she performed with her body and soul. It was extraordinary to watch. A definite must see for anyone who loves piano or classical music!” – Kimberley, year 2

“I’d never seen someone just play solo like that for a whole show which was really cool and it’s not something I’d go to otherwise. I did enjoy it, but I don’t think it was that amazing so I doubt I’ll go to something like it again, but I’m glad I went especially because the venue was so impressive.” – Joe, year 2

“I thought it was a lovely evening and very sophisticated. The playing was amazing, the standard too. And the riff at the end that she played was a funny, I can’t remember what she said now, was it what inspired Bach? Either way the history and playing was lovely.”  Miriam, year 2
“I thought it was an interesting experience. She was extremely talented. I think it may have been a difficult choice of music if you had never seen classical music before. But overall I enjoyed it.” – Sophie , year 2

And if you would like to read a professional journalist review of this show, you can always check the local press’ views

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Dear Angela

contributed by Dr. Emil C Toescu, Science Tutor, LANS course

Dear Angela, I love Bach. And I like you, but…

hewitt-concert-in-birmingham-bachThis was a concert of two halves. In the first part, mostly minor keys, it was like you came out of a sauna, and your sound was sweaty, cloggy, like emerging from a treacle, notes were overdone, and were bursting with emotional loading – where Bach is something else, a pure crystal of music.

But in the second part, you seemed to find ‘my’ Bach – a half that was played more in the Swiss Alps (ok, in the mountains of Bach’s Germany!), with clean, clear, fresh air whizzing through the notes and through the phrasing, with notes separated and becoming more like drops of music.AngelaHewit

Angela Hewitt at a piano, engaging in her style with Bach’s music

To understand my point about the ‘quality’ of the notes, and why in Bach the notes should be as sharply defined as possible, with as little legato and “expression”, is probably important to realise that this music has not been written for the tonally rich and hugely expressive modern piano, but for the straight and ‘simple’ harpsichord, just a plucking instrument!  It is probably best to experience this difference in sound, and here youtube comes in handy. I was not able to find too much Hewitt  playing the French suites on youtube but two hugely important pianist of our time are Andras Schiff and  Murray Perahia. Here is the French Suite No. 6 (E Major) (the one that opened the second part of Angela’s concert) with Perahia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cMZ-6vWZWM ) and with Schiff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkNPezHTWzU ). And, for comparison, this is the harpsichord, ‘original’ sound of this suite – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyHeOOHt3Fs . Most relevant to my points about the treacle, clogging sound of Hewitt is to hear the difference harpsichord – piano in the slow, stately part, the Sarabande (starting at around 4 -4:15 min).

But then, I also enjoyed the exposure to the whole package of the French Suites – I have heard all of them before, here and there, but never listen them one after the other. And when I did that I eventually heard how they are coming together to created the atmosphere of a huge Baroque party. Only by hearing them as a package one can really appreciate their fundamental structure: bringing together different forms of dances, popular at that time. And I also did not appreciate that these suites have a very similar structure, with a starting Allemande, followed by a Courante, jollier and jumpier, and then by a stately Sarabande, all slow and in danger of becoming a raking heavy stone caught in thick mud if treated with too much respect (and, here, Angela, all your Sarabandes were like that, and in each I felt like caught in quicksands…).

The section that I enjoyed most of the whole concert: the last section, the Gigue from the 5th Suite (in G major). I can’t find a Hewitt on this, but I could find a Schiff playing it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nz0V8HDGnDI. Incredible – so ahead of its time, so complex while crystalline. And, in Hewitt’s interpretation on the night, almost so jazzy, flowing with a swing! Which brings me to the last element that I’d like to bring in this mix – that Bach’s music has represented a good hunting ground for an educated jazz ear – and no.1 in this list is the French pianist Jacques Loussier, and here is a whole album of this music: Jacques Loussier Trio play Bach – The Bach Book (complete album): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCuv9gSu09U  (and some purists really hate this take on Saint J.S.Bach).

jacques-loussier

The Jacques Loussier Trio

Two hundred years ago, Bach would be looking forward to his 32nd birthday in about a month and half’s time. And after all this time, we still see him as a point of huge musical and cultural reference.