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 ( ) and with Schiff ( ). And, for comparison, this is the harpsichord, ‘original’ sound of this suite – . 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: 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):  (and some purists really hate this take on Saint J.S.Bach).


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.