A sold-out Calderwood Hall welcomed Angela Hewitt at the Gardner on Sunday afternoon, giving her recital the feeling of a homecoming. Before sitting down at the keyboard, Hewitt took a few minutes to initiate us into her purpose in making us hear anew the timeless power of J S Bach’s preludes and fugues as fons et origo of Western music. She asked us to refrain from applauding through the whole first half of the program, as she went from Bach to Mendelssohn, Shostakovitch and Barber. Sharing what has fueled her whole life, and helping us to hear these works with fresh sensitivity mattered more to her than accolades. As a consequence, Hewitt not only dazzled, she also enlightened, surprised and left her mysterious spirited mark of a dedicated, serious, generous artist upon our hearts.
She’s right! It all begins with J S Bach. Like Euclid’s Elements, the Well-Tempered Clavier arrived after centuries of developments, summarizing and formalizing them, both an end and a beginning. And like the Euclid, the WTC provides an endless source of riches. Hewitt chose the first six preludes and fugues of the WTC Book I, rearranging the order so that the C-sharp minor prelude and fugue would remain in our ears when she started on Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, Op. 35, No. 1. It struck me most forcefully how effortlessly Hewitt gave a marvelously distinct character to each of the six Bach works, elevating them collectively to a new level of expressiveness above and beyond their familiar formal elegance. She used subtle dynamics to give the opening Prelude in C major a rippling, sunlit beauty, then imbued the ensuing fugue with an assertoric, almost march-like quality, boldly delineating each entry to convey a sense that there was no turning back. In contrast, she gave the C-minor pair an urgent, passionate character, spinning vortices into space, sharply accenting on the beat to evoke something like the marriage of earth and sky. Turning to d major, she brought out a proud and buoyant sound, with a gentle humor in the fugue suggestive of gritty inventiveness, before a dramatically final cadence. In the d minor work, she used her left-hand bass to drive the arpeggios in the right-hand, allowing the rhythm to carry us past sadness and nostalgia into something that approached amor fati. Again, in sharp contrast, Hewitt interpreted the c-shap major work as a festive celebration, full of skipping and leaping, resilience and joy. Ending with a solemn, almost dolorous rendition of the c-sharp minor, she allowed a haunting beauty to penetrate our whole being; she had emphatically made her case that the six first pieces of Bach’s WTC suffice to show Bach’s capacious range of emotional expressiveness and enduring power as a wellspring of artistry.
Hewitt flew into Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (1837) on wings of fire, con fuoco, revealing the sense in which Romantic inspiration carried Mendelssohn from start to finish in this work — Shelley-like, “Be thou me, impetuous one!”—sweeping forward through a rumbling of conflicting emotions, redeeming pain with beauty, self-doubt with energy! And if the subject evoked the solitude of a tentative, self-creating individual, the fugue in turn brought tenderness and solace, proclaiming that we meet the aching mystery of life with friends and soulmates, artists and musicians who carry us to transcendence and to reconciliation. O Death, where is thy sting?
To Shostaskovitch’s surprising Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, Op. 87 (1952), she gave a lightly danced flavor, mysterious and beguiling, with ominous undertones, but she also delivered a slightly syncopated, folksong freshness, as though aimed at channeling the healing innocence of trees and streams in the early Spring.
Hewitt ended the first part of her program with Barber’s devilishly challenging Fugue from the Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor, Op. 26 (1949), composed for Horowitz. Boldly exploiting the complex overtones, Hewitt gave it a three-dimensional reading, bringing out the lofty rhythms and harmonies while retaining all of the brilliant, brittle, jaunty, seductive jazzy elements. Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness! By drinking from Bach’s source, Barber plunged us into an explosion of creativity without compass, a genuine letting-go of “development and recapitulation” in favor of a new aesthetic of open-ended adventure made up of fragments of dance, poetry and faith ― “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Hewitt has performed Schumann’s great “cry of the heart to Clara’s heart,” namely his Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11, since she was a teenager. Every twist and turn of this vast Alpine landscape of a piece, with glistening lakes and sudden waterfalls, storms and buried roots, mock-fugue subjects and unexpected counterpoint, throbs in her entire corpus. She gave the upwelling of feelings in the opening movement a distinctly Romantic aura by emphasizing abrupt contrasts, chasms and summits, shifting from the beautiful and the tender to the dark and the sublime in what again felt like a magically spatialized aesthetic. The melodious Aria of the brief second movement, marked senza passione, ma espressivo, took on a distinctly contemplative color, full of grace in its lyricism, conveying Schumann’s dispossession, saying “my heart is not where I am but where my beloved is, far away.” In contrast, the scherzo felt lovingly self-deprecating, jester-like, harlequin-like with its mock-fugues and somersaults, seriously playing, seriously proclaiming to Clara “I’ll tumble for you!” ― and indeed Hewitt ended it on a stunningly bold interrupted cadence, in full flight, evocative of a trapeze artist who is willing to defy gravity and risk every abyss rather than turn back on his calling of love and destiny. Hewitt continued the sense of acrobatic inventiveness into the Allegro Finale, dancing through vertiginous key changes and shifting themes too numerous to count as though composer and pianist, Robert and Clara, were locked into a swirling dialogue of mutual creation far above a daunting abyss, escaping gravity through sheer prowess and the force of love. With luscious notes like jewels, full of splendor as though catching the rays of a higher sun, Hewitt clearly emphasized the ascending thrust of the final phrases rising above rolling waves of an indifferent eternity, asserting that love transcends finitude and prevails. But wait! We heard that in Bach’s Fugue in C-sharp Minor, right?
Responding to the audience’s gratitude for all that she had brought us in one rich afternoon, Hewitt played Richard Strauss’s quieting love song, Morgen, transcribed for piano by Reger. Hewitt seemed to be telling us to Listen with your whole body, dance with your whole heart, live with the full plenitude of music.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.