Saturday, 6 May 2017


Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday (4 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 May 2017 with the title "Playing Bach with elegance".

Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is one of the planet's great Bach interpreters, and so she was expected to perform Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works, as she did in her previous recitals here. She had played the Goldberg Variations (2001) and The Well-Tempered Clavier (2008) in the same venue to ecstatic acclaim. This time, two of Bach's six Partitas got an airing.

Playing Bach on a modern piano is no longer a contentious issue. That pianists as diverse as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt could be equally persuasive in their own way showed that there is no single prescribed method of showcasing the great German's music. Hewitt's Bach is elegant and tasteful, articulated with freshness and vitality. She proved it yet again, bringing out a rich, pearly tone on a Fazioli grand piano specially flown in from Italy.

The multi-movement Partitas were originally designated as keyboard exercises, but these handily brought together series of antique dances offering an unending source of invention for the performer to revel in.

The short and slender First Partita in B flat major made stark contrasts with the monumental Fourth Partita in D major. Hewitt chose to play all the repeats, with some ornamentation – effective and never overdone – to vary the course. The fast dances were unerring in detail while time stood still in the slow and ruminative Sarabandes.

Then it had to happen at a quiet and meditative point of the Fourth Partita. A toddler seated on his mother's lap in the front row threw a tantrum, shouting, “I wanna go home!”. Hauled out United Airlines-style and yelling all the way to the exit, the magic of the moment had been irreparably sullied.

While one does not expect outright bans on children in concerts, parents should at least exercise commonsense in choosing suitable concerts for their juveniles' ages. Toddlers simply do not belong outside of Babies Proms. To Hewitt's credit, she never flinched, completed the Sarabande before launching into the fugal Gigue with stunning aplomb.

Never satisfied to be type-cast as merely a Bach specialist, the balance of Hewitt's recital offered yet further contrasts. In five Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the piano was imaginatively transformed to strumming guitars, hunting horns and a military band with drums and fifes, with myriad colours and shades to match.

The three movements of Ravel's Sonatine combined to varying degrees classical restraint, French impressionism and Belle Epoque aesthetics. The transition from the staid Minuet rhythm of the slow movement to the finale's brilliant whirlwind also summed up in a nutshell the recital's sense of variety.

And what about the playful final number in Chabrier's Bourree Fantasque? It was a joyous return to the recital's earlier dance theme, this time with French modal folk influences and dancehall gaieties thrown into the mix. Very loud applause yielded two sublime encores. First, Debussy's Clair de lune and it was back to Bach in the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.  

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