Angela Hewitt, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

By the middle of the last decade Angela Hewitt had recorded very nearly all of Bach’s works for keyboard. Only one remained – the encyclopaedic Art of Fugue, a challenge to performers and listeners alike – and the flow of letters asking when this would be added grew to the point where she dubbed the work “the bloody Art of Fugue”.

Now, happily, the swearing can stop. Over the 2012-13 season Hewitt is taking The Art of Fugue around the world from New York to Stockholm, Rome to Ottawa. Having played the first half in London last October, she returned this week for the conclusion in a nearly sold-out Royal Festival Hall, an extraordinary turn-out for music that is, in her words, “not an easy ride”.

Her programme let the audience in gently. Bach’s “Chromatic” Fantasia and Fugue is a showpiece that sets the intellectual gemstone of the fugue in a glittering setting of arpeggios; Hewitt’s modern take on Bach rendered it in shining clarity, a model of quick intelligence and perfect fingerwork.

The Beethoven piano sonata that followed worked less well. The Sonata in A Flat Major, Op.110, was a good choice, as it also has a fugue at its heart, but this late work uses the form for different ends and Hewitt’s bright, precise playing rarely ascended to the mystical realms of Beethoven’s imagination.

Then it was on to the second part of The Art of Fugue, comprising Contrapuncti 11-14, interspersed with four Canons. Hewitt introduced this half herself, showing how intricately Bach turns his themes inside out and upside down, and then played straight through with the aid of the score on an iPad ingeniously worked by a pedal. Two hands are hardly enough for this music and it is not surprising it is often played by multiple performers or even an orchestra. This is where science and music meet, and Hewitt’s eloquent exposition of each fugue’s “formula”, the result of a lifetime’s immersion in Bach’s music, could hardly be bettered. She stopped in the middle of Contrapunctus 14, at the point where Bach died. Then, after a short silence, the chorale prelude written into the manuscript by Bach’s son made a moving conclusion.

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