No looking Bach with Angela Hewitt’s forward-looking “Goldberg” Variations

Mon May 25, 2009 at 12:21 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Angela Hewitt performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations Sunday at Symphony Center.

Angela Hewitt takes a graceful walk across an empty Symphony Center stage for her overdue debut here Sunday afternoon, wearing a pleated, black-and-white skirt below an elegant, strapped black top that leaves her long, sinewy arms and shoulders completely exposed.  Glenn Gould, eat your heart out.

As the Canadian pianist slowly and deliberately intoned the familiar Aria that opens Bach’s Goldberg Variations, her touch was delicate but louder and slower than seemed ideal at first; the lid is open only a small crack, but the Hamburg Steinway can be an instrument of immense power nonetheless.  Her initial trills sounded a bit smudged and unfocused, her tempo erratic as Hewitt attempted to locate the appropriate zone of tempo and dynamics.             

There are various approaches to performing the Goldberg Variations, most having to do with tone color, an element largely determined by the performer’s choice of instrument.  Bach’s own was the double-manual harpsichord, complete with stops and couplers to vary the sound, but recent recordings of the work have included versions for string trio and even harp.

If you perform the variations on the modern piano, a practice made popular by Gould, the most practical problem are the passages that require a constant collision of the performer’s hands back and forth across a single keyboard— a visually arresting virtuosic phenomenon that has always been appealing to audiences, but an enormous physical and mental challenge for the pianist who has to develop gargantuan powers of simultaneous coordination.  

Whatever the instrument, the most common interpretive approach is to present the work in an abstract and episodic manner of taking deliberate pauses between its thirty variations and use its bookend Aria as points of departure and arrival.

Not Hewitt.  For starters, by taking every repeat of each variation, and by offering contrasting details within those repeats, many of the variations take on a decidedly sonata-like feel with repeats often serving as a kind of recapitulation much the way they would in Haydn or Mozart.

And yet, by often gliding from one variation right into another virtually without pause, Hewitt manages to construct continuous building-blocks of Bach that, together with contrasting repeats, make for larger segments of music that at times, remind us of the way that Beethoven will employ the same technique decades later.

I was enormously distracted by this approach at first, but as the piece progressed and the intensity of the music increased, Hewitt made such an imaginative and eloquent case for this view that she won me over.  Instead of seeing Bach as the culmination of everything that preceded him, Hewitt refreshingly reminds us that Bach was also the forerunner of all that followed him.  There are times when, in Hewitt’s hands, at least, you can hear Bach not only as a direct precursor to Classicism and to 19th century Romanticism, but even to late Liszt and Scriabin.  

To be sure, many elements associated with the Baroque performance practices of Bach’s era are nowhere to be found: Hewitt’s use of rubato, for instance, is so erratic that it would make Brahms and Wagner blush.  Except for the variations that feature repeated arpeggios used as backdrops for countermelodies, there is little “backbeat,” or pulsating sense of swing to Hewitt’s approach.  Indeed, the linearity of much of what surrounds the themes related to the Aria itself are usually treated in a vertical manner more appropriate for music of the second half rather than the first half of the 18th century, serving to demonstrate the daring harmonic convergences implicitly created by Bach’s counterpoint.           

After eighty minutes of Bach and a long, hushed silence after the last note of a decidedly more tranquil and poetic closing Aria died away, the appreciative and attentive audience gave Hewitt a standing ovation. The pianist returned for a single encore, a stately, slow and Romanticized rendition of the Dame Myra Hess arrangement of Bach’s Cantata BWV 147 chorale, popularly known as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. 

Award-winning journalist, critic, producer, broadcaster, author and educator Dennis Polkow has been covering the Chicago music scene for 25 years, writing for publications such as Musical America, Musician, Grammy Magazine, The Strad, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times and Baker’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians, and is currently music and arts critic for Newcity.     

Posted in Performances

One Response to “No looking Bach with Angela Hewitt’s forward-looking “Goldberg” Variations”

  1. Posted Jun 24, 2009 at 7:10 pm by Yuta

    It’s amazing how one man can still inspire such hot debate and interpretation. I found an interesting discussion on Pandalous about how using the pedal can alone change so much to a Bach piece. It’s here:

Leave a Comment