'Her [Hewitt's] playing is absolutely captivating: she decorates the solo part with playful, come-hither ornamentation - twirls, flutters, arabesques - and yet it never disturbs the clear, logical path she forges through the course of each work. Her staccato touch has the force of sprung steel and yet her legato line is a miracle of smoothness and transparency. An absolute joy' (Gramophone)
'Hewitt's Bach is well-known for its expressive restraint, lucid textures and rhythmic grace. These virtues are abundantly present in her thoughtful, unmannered approach to the Concertos. Contrapuntal arguments are admirably clear and Hewitt's restricted use of the sustaining pedal ensures a pleasing clarity of dialogue. These virtues are mirrored by the lightly articulated bowing of the strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the direction of its leader Richard Tognetti … My own preference lies just with Hewitt and her Australian musicians' (BBC Music Magazine)
'As always, she [Hewitt] really sparkles in the allegros, infusing the music with wit as well as technical bravura' (Sunday Times)
'these two discs, while available separately, go in tandem as a beguiling example of what can be achieved in performances of Baroque music on the piano when they have been prepared with such thought and are blessed with such compelling artistry as Angela Hewitt's. (The Daily Telegraph)
'The result of their historically informed modern-instrument take on the music is stunning, with crisp rhythms and singing melodic lines' (Classic FM Magazine)
'Hewitt's performances are brilliantly alive. Her subtle lyricism adds a rich, occasionally dark dimension, possibly not as Bach himself would have envisaged, but always with a deep sense of musical integrity' (The Scotsman)
'Here the Fazioli is heard at its exquisite best, its spongey bass chords pumping with clarity, its treble caressing a heart-tuggingly beautiful legato out of the slow movement, while the dainty strings sketch an almost tongue-in-cheek pizzicato in the background. Hewitt's sense of phrase is masterful … the statements have regal import under the authoritative hands of this queen of keyboard playing' (The Times)
'Her fingers dance as well as sing: in the outer movements, rhythms are buoyantly sprung, and this communicates itself to the members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, whose slender string accompaniment in no way lessens their energy, while Hewitt responds by projecting the piano parts with all due attention to Bach's overall texture' (International Record Review)
'Ils sont tous les deux [enregistrements éminents de cette musique dans cette configuration à "instruments modernes"] littéralement enterrés par la nouvelle gravure Hewitt-Tognetti' (ClassicsTodayFrance.com)
'Ms. Hewitt's recordings exude timeless beauty and introspection, and when wed to Hyperion's exquisite and sensuous tonal lustre, are must-haves for the Bach enthusiast' (Fanfare, USA)
Allegro assai [3'50]
Together with its companion, these CDs contain all Bach’s extant concertos that feature a solo keyboard. Most were written in the 1730s and are thought to be arrangements of earlier concertos, many of which are now lost (though two will be recognized as Bach’s E major and A minor violin concertos and the sixth is an arrangement of the fourth Brandenburg). The fifth Brandenburg Concerto, with harpsichord, flute and violin soloists, dates from 1721 and is generally regarded as the first concerto for a solo keyboard instrument ever written. Bach made the keyboard part particularly brilliant and included a huge cadenza; he certainly knew how to establish a genre with a bang!
Hewitt’s Bach is by now self-recommending but only after playing Bach across the world with numerous ensembles did Angela decide that the Australian Chamber Orchestra were the perfect collaborators. After a month of concerts across Australia these recordings were set down in Sydney in February of this year and the frisson of artists operating at the peak of their form is clear for all to hear. One is immediately struck by the quality of chamber-music playing as phrases are passed from soloist to orchestra and, in the case of Brandenburg Concerto No 5 and the Triple Concerto, between all three soloists. Rhythms are buoyant, tempos lively, the spirit of dance is never far away in the fast movements and a perfectly vocal quality pervades the sung lines of the slow movements.
These CDs will surely be the jewels in the crown of Angela Hewitt’s magnificent Bach series.
Other recommended albums
When Johann Sebastian Bach left his post as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen in 1723 to go to the more prestigious city of Leipzig as Kantor of the Thomaskirche, he had no idea of the troubles that awaited him there. In Cöthen he had spent six very happy years composing mainly instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the first volume of the Well-tempered Clavier, and the French Suites. He had, however, hesitated before accepting the new position, as the switch from Kapellmeister (director of music) to Kantor (director of church music) was a step downwards in status, but he knew that Leipzig would be a better place to educate his children. His first wife had died suddenly in 1720, leaving him with three sons and a daughter (three others, including twins, had died in infancy), but a year later he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a professional singer sixteen years his junior, and the mother-to-be of thirteen more Bachs. Although his income increased with the move to Leipzig, the high cost of living in that city made it difficult for such a large family. As part of his duties as Kantor and Director Musices, Bach was responsible for music at Leipzig’s four major churches and in the choir school, at the university, and on civic occasions. None of the authorities of these institutions appreciated Bach’s genius (one of them even dared to say that Bach showed ‘little inclination to work’), and their penny-pinching and narrow-mindedness were a constant source of annoyance.
It was therefore no doubt with great pleasure that Bach accepted, in 1729 at the age of forty-four, the post of director of the Collegium Musicum, a music society founded in 1702 at Leipzig University by Georg Philipp Telemann. It consisted of a talented group of music students that was probably augmented by professionals when needed. Their concerts were held in the popular surroundings of Zimmermann’s Coffee House, where people came together to smoke, drink and listen to pleasant music. In summer, they played outdoors. Surely it was especially crowded during the spring and fall when Leipzig played host to many foreign merchants who came for the fairs.
These informal concerts must have been a happy contrast for Bach to the endless problems at the Thomaskirche. He remained director for the next ten years, composing many secular instrumental works during this time. After that time was up, he turned his attention towards composing his ‘summation works’: the B minor Mass, the ‘Goldberg’ Variations, the Musical Offering, and the Art of Fugue.
The seven keyboard concertos were composed during the final years of his directorship of the Collegium Musicum, although many exist in other forms that probably originated in Cöthen. Before 1710, Bach had copied out works in concerto form by both Albinoni and Telemann (his favourite way to learn new things), and during the next few years adapted concertos by Vivaldi, Torelli, Marcello and others. It is not known whether he composed his own concertos during his stay in Weimar (1708–1717), although the Preludes to the English Suites show to what extent he had absorbed the Italian concerto style. His first known works in this genre are the famous Brandenburg Concertos, dating from 1721. They were written in Cöthen, and presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, from whom Bach was possibly seeking employment. The Margrave left them to gather dust, but, fortunately for us, they were picked up at his death in 1734 by Bach’s pupil, Kirnberger.
It is said that if we sat down and copied out all of the music Bach wrote it would take us a lifetime. Yet he was composing it as well. So it is no wonder that from time to time he borrowed from himself. Such is the case with the keyboard concertos. If an original version has not been handed down to us (for instance, the A minor Violin Concerto became the G minor Keyboard Concerto; the E major Violin Concerto was turned into the D major Keyboard Concerto; and so on), then there probably was one but it has been lost. Concerto movements also ended up in cantatas, often with florid parts being added to an already busy original. This recycling is one of the arguments I use to defend the performance of Bach on the modern piano. If he could write for violin, oboe or voice a singing, melodic line that would have its natural inflections, phrasing, and rise and fall, then why would he not have wanted to hear it on a keyboard instrument that was capable of doing the same thing (since the harpsichord could not)?
Concerto No 1 in D minor, BWV1052 is the most famous and powerful of the seven concertos. Here the original version is without doubt a lost violin concerto as so much of the solo writing is characteristic of that instrument (especially in the use of bariolage, the name given to passages which rotate around a single note on an open string). To this day there is discussion among musicologists as to whether the original concerto was actually written by Bach or by somebody else. I cannot think of another composer who could even come close to rivalling the amazing intensity and scope of this piece, not to mention the dramatic and emotional impact it creates.
Certainly the opening tutti, with its unison writing, announces something special, and very different from the other keyboard concertos. This theme reappears throughout, separating the different excursions of the soloist. The most dramatic part of the movement is where the keyboard has a brief moment on its own, taking off over a long sustained pedal note in the bass. The Adagio also begins with a unison tutti – this time a ground bass which is present in every bar, modulating to different keys and sometimes fragmented. The soloist is given an impassioned aria, and engages in dialogue with the violins and violas. The whole is totally reminiscent of Passion music. The third movement is the most brilliant finale of the concertos, not letting up for a moment, and demands the utmost in rhythmic precision and virtuosity.
The first two movements of this concerto appear in the Cantata BWV146, Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen (‘We must pass through much tribulation to enter God’s kingdom’). Both movements give the solo part to the organ in a slightly less developed form. Amazingly, in what seems like an already very elaborate slow movement, Bach adds a four-part chorus above the keyboard part. The third movement appears as the Sinfonia to Cantata BWV188, Ich habe meine Zuversicht (‘I have my trust in God’). Both of these works were written between 1726 and 1728, so probably pre-date the keyboard concerto. The popularity of this work dates back to Mendelssohn’s performance of it in Leipzig in 1837, and the subsequent publication of the score.
The Concerto No 7 in G minor, BWV1058 is one of Bach’s most popular concerto works. Known more widely as the Concerto in A minor for violin, BWV1041 it is nevertheless extremely powerful on the keyboard – and especially so on the modern piano. Its first movement is forthright, determined, allowing for no nonsense. The few lighter passages do not last long. The Andante is stately, beginning quietly with an ostinato bass that introduces another of those beautiful melodies that only Bach could write. The feeling is quite rhapsodic, although the form is strict. The fireworks are, as usual in these works, kept for the last movement which begins and ends as a fugue. The tempo is quick but should not be rushed. It is more important to feel the swing of the dance than to show off.
The most important thing to note about the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major, BWV1050 is that this was the first time ever that the harpsichord had been used in a concerto for anything other than the continuo. Always in the background, providing the necessary colour and rhythmic stability (and often conducting as well), the continuo player never really had a chance to shine; but here he takes his revenge! At the beginning of the opening Allegro it almost seems as though the other soloists (flute and violin) have the more important musical dialogue, but gradually the keyboard asserts itself, finally brushing all others aside and launching into an extraordinary sixty-five-bar cadenza. If I say that it is all entirely written out by Bach, it is only because I am frequently asked after concert performances if I wrote it myself! It begins quite lyrically, but then comes a tremendous build-up over a long pedal point in the bass. Some really wild figurations and large jumps in the left hand take us to a climax in B minor. A brief five-bar bridge masterfully returns us to the tonic and the orchestral ritornello. It is thought that Bach might have been inspired to write such a piece to show off the new two-manual harpsichord he had just received from Berlin. It was certainly written with a powerful instrument in mind.
The second movement in B minor, marked Affettuoso, is a touching trio sonata for the three soloists. Unlike the middle movement of the Triple Concerto, however, there is need for a continuo group to accompany the flute and violin when the keyboard is not playing as a soloist. Normally, of course, the one harpsichordist would do both, but here we have used both instruments to clearly separate those passages. The mood is gentle and tender, but with the sense of sorrow that often seems to come with the key of B minor.
The final Allegro is a spirited gigue with an upbeat that gives it a wonderful ‘lift’. Throughout this concerto there is no second violin part – only a small ‘ripieno’ group. Bach himself usually played the viola, but obviously in this piece was seated at the harpsichord, so his place was no doubt filled by the second violinist.
The Triple Concerto in A minor, BWV1044 uses the same solo group as does the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 (keyboard, flute and violin). It is, however, totally different in many ways, the first being that the keyboard part (with the exception of the cadenza of the Brandenburg) is far more present and is easily the most prominent of the three solo instruments in the outer movements. Perhaps this is because those movements originated as a solo keyboard work, the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV894. It makes a fascinating study to compare the two versions to see how effortlessly he turned a solo prelude into an imposing concerto movement. It also is a clue to how we should conceive and interpret many of his solo pieces in orchestral terms. This long movement is driven forward with the use of triplets, dotted notes and pizzicatos.
The second movement is a transcription of the middle movement of the Trio Sonata in D minor, BWV527 for organ. Originally in F major, it is set here in C major. It is almost in the style galant of his son, C P E Bach, although the chromaticisms give him away, as do the amazing shifts in tonality. The dialogue between the three soloists is continuous, but finally comes to rest on the dominant of A minor (the same type of cadence is used at the end of the slow movement of the F minor Concerto). To the original tempo marking of Adagio Bach adds ma non tanto which should serve as a warning not to take it too slowly.
In the solo harpsichord version, the last movement was a fugal moto perpetuo that simply allowed the soloist to show off. With the addition of the orchestra and other soloists, however, Bach produces a work of amazing impact and religious fervour. The swirling triplets of the keyboard part are introduced, interrupted, and finally concluded by a rousing chorus written in alla breve time and reminiscent of the stile antico (Renaissance polyphony). Throughout, everyone but the keyboard player sticks with subject material from this introduction, which is really a variation of the harmonic outline of the fugal subject. Outbursts of quite ferocious chords from the orchestra seem like a condemnation of the sinners. The climax comes with a cadenza for keyboard written over a long pedal point. The final tutti has two different endings in various editions: either major or minor. We have opted for the feeling of hope and salvation that the major mode implies.
Angela Hewitt © 2005
Other albums in this series