Angela Hewitt: An Audience Perspective

Angela Hewitt: An Audience Perspective

By Meg Cotner

Portland Piano International’s 2018-19 season ended with the return of Angela Hewitt to the Lincoln Hall stage, a much-anticipated event for many in Portland. She is much beloved by this city – and she loves us back – and Portland responded to her arrival with a full house. Her recitals were on the evening of Friday, May 3 and the afternoon of Sunday, May 5, with programs dedicated entirely to the music of JS Bach; Angela is considered one of the most prominent Bach interpreters on the piano.

Preceding each recital was a talk by Director of Audience Engagement, Bill Crane. Bill has known Angela for years and told some wonderful and heartfelt stories about her, which those in attendance were delighted to hear. Big thanks to Bill for sharing these stories.

Angela played both programs on a Fazioli piano that she, herself, chose right there at the Fazoli factory in Italy. The instrument had a beautiful black sheen and the quality of the sound worked very well for Bach; I’ve always been a Steinway gal, but I gained a good appreciation for this piano through Angela’s performances. On a more surface observation, the Faziolo logo has a great look to it.

Bach Toccatas on Friday

Friday’s recital was dedicated primarily to a selection of Bach’s toccatas, with the addition of the amazing blowout of a piece, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903. As a harpsichordist who has played some of these pieces, I was keenly interested to hear what such a well-respected Bach piano interpreter would do with them.

One thing my ear was attuned to, was the trills. Pianists tend to use a more modern approach to trills in contrast to the way harpsichordists or organists would have executed them in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pianists start on the written note and move up a whole or half step, whereas during the time of Bach a trill was performed by starting on the note above what is written. This is definitely a place where early music players and modern players part ways, and it’s a fascinating topic!

But back to the toccatas – a word that translates to “touch piece,” it is all about the keyboard player’s ability to move around the keyboard in a virtuosic way. As Angela’s program notes explain, Bach was influenced by the stylus fantasticus, “a very unrestrained and free way of composing, using dramatic and extravagant rhetorical gestures.” In particular, the third toccata on the program (F-sharp minor, BWV 910) reminded me of the toccatas of 17th century composer Johann Jakob Froberger, of whose works Bach studied.

Each toccata has an implied “and fugue,” meaning each piece ends with a fugue. Bach was a master at this imitative form, and Angela really took advantage of the tools she had with the piano, compared with the harpsichord – more control over dynamics to add contrast, clarity, and interest. It was a joy to hear her perform all these toccatas, but I was particularly taken with her approach to the fugal sections. And of course, the final piece, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, was so much fun to hear, and brought back a lot of memories from my time learning it in school. Playing it is a great time, and Angela certainly showed us how much she enjoyed it; it’s a very physical piece. The audience responded with applause, cheers, and a standing ovation. Her encore was Bach, Cantata No. 208, “Sheep May Safely Graze” arranged by Mary Howe.

English Suites on Saturday

On Sunday, Angela presented a program comprised primarily of Bach’s English Suites, along with the Suite in F Minor, BWV 823 (fragment) and the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 894. As much as I like the toccatas and their extroverted wonderland of sound, the suite form has a very special place in my heart, and I absolutely love the English Suites, which Bach biographer Forkel indicated are suites Bach wrote for an English nobleman. In any case, the various dance movements are a mix of French and Italian styles with core dance movements of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, along with a Prelude and additional dances like Gavottes and Bourrées.

One decision that keyboard players sometimes get stuck on is playing all the repeats in the dance movements; Angela chose to play all of them, which could be considered a bold move. While she didn’t go overboard with ornamentation on the repeated sections, it gave us another chance to hear this beautiful music, beautifully played.

It is conjectured that Bach would have loved the piano and all the “options” it has compared to the harpsichord, but especially when it comes to the ability to shade dynamics on a piano. The Sarabande in the A Major English Suite was so tender and lovely, and the way Angela played it, it really hit me how much Bach would have enjoyed the dynamic range he could have gotten out of the instrument if he’d had one of these Faziolis. Over and over in this A Major suite I was taken by her phrasing and articulation of the bass line – it was really fantastic, nuanced playing.

The bass lines in the rest of the suites were rendered as fascinating and engaging, truth be told. I remember thinking, “In these suites the melody is one thing, but the joy of the bass line is clear.”

The F minor suite – not an English Suite – is a fragment and from the get-go, it sounded unmistakably like Bach. It was just three movements: Prelude, Sarabande en Rondeau, and a Gigue. In the Sarabande, Angela used one of my favorite techniques, which was de-emphasizing of notes rather than emphasizing. It is more elegant, and more interesting. A Canarie-style Gigue never disappoints, either, with its forward leaning, energetic repetitive bass line.

The G minor English Suite is one of my most cherished pieces, one that I studied pretty intensely during the Conservatory days and over the years I’ve considered the Prelude a terrific piece with which to test out a new instrument. Aside from the awesome Prelude, I really liked the way Angela played the two Gavottes with their distinctive double upbeats. The Gigue is like a perpetual motion machine and it never quits; Angela’s performance was stunning.

The Prelude and Fugue was a nice change of pace after all those dance movements, as much as I love dance movements. The Prelude sounds like a concerto, full of virtuosity and a cool echo section. The Fugue is quite a whirl of sound – it goes on and on and on, weaving its way across the keyboard. Angela’s masterful playing of this piece gave her a standing ovation from the audience and numerous curtain calls. After that she presented us a lovely performance of “Fanfarinette” from Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s A minor suite. You don’t often hear Rameau played on the piano, and Angela’s interpretation is a strong defense for other pianists to venture further into French Baroque keyboard territory, often considered “off-limits” to pianists.

What a great end to the 41st Season at Portland Piano International. Thanks for joining us and we look forward to seeing you next year.