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Well Tempered Clavier Books I & II BWV 846-893
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Review: Hewitt's recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier (recent re-release)


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

WTC 1: 24 Preludes & Fugues BWV 846-869 [116:37]
WTC 2: 24 Preludes & Fugues BWV 870-893 [147:34]

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Hyperion 44291/4

WTC1: Jun, Dec 1997
WTC 2: Aug 1998; Mar 1999

4-CD / TT:

Recorded at the Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany.
Review: Bach Recording for 1999 [WTC 2]
Buy this album at: [Box Set]

Review: Hewitt's recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier (recent re-release)

Peter Bright wrote (February 25, 2008):
Towards the end of last year, Hyperion re-released Angela Hewitt's recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier (from the late 1990s) in a budget boxed set. I thought some group members might be interested in reading my recent review (below), shortly to appear on MusicWeb.


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier
CD1: Preludes and fugues (BWV 846-869, Nos 1-12)
CD2: Preludes and fugues (BWV 846-869, Nos 13-24)
CD3: Preludes and fugues (BWV 870-893, Nos 1-12)
CD4: Preludes and fugues (BWV 870-893, Nos 13-24)
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 5-7 June 1997 (CD1), 17-19 December (CD2), 17-19 August 1998 (CD3) and 21-23 March 1999 (CD4), Beethovensaal, Hanover. DDD
Hyperion CDS44291/4 [56:38 + 59:55 + 72:34 + 74:56]

It is something of an honour for me to review this magnificent set of recordings, first released in 1998 (Book 1) and 1999 (Book 2). The reputation of Angela Hewitt as a Bach interpretor of the highest order was first established in reaction to these performances, and they have received numerous international awards. It is, therefore, of little surprise that MusicWeb International lists the original releases as all time great performances of Bach's music.

Having lived with Angela Hewitt's lyrical and thoughtful approach to Bach for several years now, I welcomed the opportunity of revisiting her performances – particularly in the context of more recent efforts by some of our most revered pianists. Daniel Barenboim, more successful in Book 2 than Book 1, provides a unifying approach in which each set of works tends to emerge as an integrated and satisfying whole rather than a wildly eclectic range of colour and character (the antithesis of Glenn Gould!). Vladimir Ashkenazy [Decca 475 6832] provides transparency and lightness of touch, but some may find his approach overly safe and somewhat lacking in interpretative gesture (although this may well be an advantage for some listeners). As much as I love these artists, it seems to me that Hewitt provides a better balance overall between respect for Bach's score and artistic ownership.

Given the consistent high quality throughout, it seems a somewhat superfluous task to identify preludes or fugues of particular performance merit. Nevertheless, for listeners unfamiliar with the works themselves I suggest sampling Book 1 first. These works are, in the main, more accessible than those in Book 2. In Hewitt's hands, the prelude and fugue in C sharp major are irresistibly joyful and dance-like. In contrast, the prelude in E flat minor is imbued with an aching sadness, a mood maintained in the companion fugue. For airy elegance, look no further than the prelude and fugue in F sharp major, or find poise and reflection in the prelude in G minor. Hewitt captures each mood quite beautifully, while at the same time respecting the wonders of Bach's complex counterpoint.

In Book 2, Bach seems to have turned in on himself rather more, as if communicating a set of private communications. This does not, of course, indicate a dropping of standards. Indeed, these pieces are perhaps more ultimately rewarding than those contained in Book 1. However, for the uninitiated, I expect they may take longer (as a whole) to be fully appreciated. Like Barenboim, Hewitt is even more convincing in Book 2. Listen to how she manages the transition from the serenity of the prelude in C sharp major into the unexpected three part fughetta in the last few bars. The stillness of the prelude in C sharp minor is beautifully handled, but never feels like it's about to fall apart (which, at the chosen tempo, might well do in less capable hands). The thrilling Italianesque prelude in D minor, played very fast, could not be more different, but not a single note is out of place. The final prelude and fugue (in B minor) are both imbued with great warmth and optimism, with any sense of melancholia swept away in their wake. A quite wonderful and spirited way for Bach to complete this greatest of musical offerings, and handled with a profound sense of purpose by Hewitt. I have struggled to identify negative aspects of these recordings, but if pushed, I was occasionally disturbed by a tendency to slow the tempo at the end of some movements before providing an overly emphasized 'finale'. But this is a very minor quibble about an otherwise magnificent and important set of recordings.


Feedback to the Review

Peter Smaill wrote (February 25, 2008):
[To Peter Bright] Certainly agree that Angela Hewitt is a star in the firmament as regards Bach's keyboard works and thank you for this review. She in particular also has popularised the Orgelbuchlein Chorale, "Alle menschen Mussen Sterben" as an encore , bravely treating a song of resignation to death as a lullaby for a general audience. It translates well to the pianoforte.

She is performing Book II of the WTC in Bristol, St George's , on the evening of 2 June 2008.

Peter Bright wrote (February 25, 2008):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks for your thoughts, Peter. Yes, I value all of Hewitt's Bach - and I think her French Suites and toccatas discs are particularly revelatory. The only relative disappointments for me were her Goldbergs (BWV 988) (I place Perahia at the top of recent offerings) and inventions recordings. I assume that you will be going to the June recital... If so, I hope it lives up to expectations...

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 25, 2008):
I've enjoyed most of what I've heard in Hewitt's WTC sets...except that I don't warm to the way in fugues she often punches out the subjects too prominently. I think there's more room in the music to bring out other things instead of the melodic subjects we already know from hearing them at the beginning of each piece; just a stylistic difference of opinion, I guess, as to strategies of playing Bach on the piano. Perhaps she has altered her interpretation anyway over the past several years of playing the whole thing live, and perhaps she'll have another go at recording them?

I tried to contact her a few months ago through her blog, which is interesting in itself, but it kept giving me error messages and I eventually gave up. I'd like to hear her play either live or on a new recording with a piano in the Bach tuning, and I believe she would be an excellent artist to give that a try if she has any inclination. I like the way she is able to find many different moods in the music, with strong focus, despite having all the keys sound the same in equal, her playing could be even more "technicolor" if tastefully expressive intonation could also come into that mix.

Last night at James Madison University (in Virginia) we had a piano concert of 20 students playing preludes and fugues from both books, on a Steinway grand tuned that way. Most of the playing was excellent, and the range of interpretations was wide. So was the varied level of experience, from some freshmen to grad students. They had me in to give a brief spoken introductto the tuning, and I played one of Kuhnau's Biblical sonatas from 1700. Some of the students were so excited after this marathon concert (2 1/2 hours) that they stayed for another half hour to try other repertoire on that piano. A nice evening.


Well Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
WTC I - D. Barenboim [D. Satz] | WTC I - D. Barenboim [P. Bright] | WTC I - L. Beausejouir & A. Vieru | WTC I - T. Fellner | WTC I - E. Fischer | WTC I - M. Horszowski | WTC I - C. Jaccottet | WTC I - R. Kirkpatrick | WTC I - T. Koopman | WTC I - W. Landowska | WTC I - R. Levin | WTC I - O. Mustonen | WTC I - E. Parmentier | WTC I - S. Richter | WTC I - S. Schepkin
General Discussions:
Part 1
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
WTC I - T. Fellner
Well Tempered Clavier Book II, BWV 870-893: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
WTC II - D. Barenboim [P. Bright] | WTC II - G. Cooper | WTC II - F. Gulda | WTC II - A. Hewitt | WTC II - R. Kirkpatrick | WTC II - J. Middleton
General Discussions:
Part 1
Well Tempered Clavier Books I&II, BWV 846-893:
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
WTC I&II - B.v. Asperen, S. Ross & G. Wilson | WTC I&II - E. Crochet | WTC I&II - O. Dantone | WTC I&II - S. Feinberg | WTC I&II - A. Hewitt | WTC II&II - T. Nikolayeva | WTC II&II - L. Thiry [N. Halliday] | WTC I&II - Z. Ruzickova

Angela Hewitt: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: Hewitt's recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier | A Stunning New Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 / Bach Recording for 1999 | Review: Toccatas played by Angela Hewitt | Hewitt’s English Suites | Review: Hewitt’s Goldberg Variations | Angela Hewitt Bach’s Recital Disc on Hyperion | Hewitt Bach arrangements [Bright] | New Album by Angela Hewitt [McElhearn]
Bach-Hewitt: Works | Recordings

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Last update: ýMay 20, 2008 ý20:52:28