'Her performances could hardly be more stylish or impeccable, more vital or refined; and, as a crowning touch, Hyperion's sound is superb' (Gramophone)
'Exquisite playing … This disc reinforces Hewitt's position as one of the supreme Bach interpreters and provides the ideal entry point for newcomers to her' (Music Week)
'Interpretations of the highest quality … For sheer virtuosity she makes us hold our breath at the combination of clarity, dynamic variety and structural comprehension, which is faultlessly conveyed' (Musical Opinion)
'This album is now the benchmark recording of these works on the piano' (Goldberg)
'imaginative and exciting performances' (The Observer)
'Angela Hewitt’s intelligent virtuosity, stylish command and uncluttered musicianship not only serve the composer well, but also prove how vibrant and expressive the toccatas can and should sound on the modern concert grand' (BBC Music Magazine)
'In Hewitt’s hands [the toccatas] evince a molten quality that places the listener in close proximity to the act of composition' (International Record Review)
'She succeeds remarkably in giving each work a differently slanted emotional colour, while every detail emerges with glittering definition … a fine disc' (Pianist)
'faultless articulation and sensitive phrasing' (Classic FM Magazine)
'She proves once again that she is an exemplary exponent of Bach’s keyboard music on the piano, making these complex pieces flow with uninterrupted inspiration' (The Independent)
'Like the music itself, the performances brim with that improvisatory spontaneity that is the hallmark of this player’s style' (The Sunday Times)
'There is much brilliant playing here … the total impression is of interpretations that are superbly performed, clean, clear and serious' (International Piano)
'interpretations that are first class from beginning to end' (Fanfare, USA)
'This disc is a delight from start to finish, a disc to lift the saddest of spirits' (BBCi)
'La pianiste possède en effet une très belle sonorité, travaillée et personelle’ (Classica, France)
'Hewitt brings a sublime grace and thoroughly musical fluidity to Bach’s endlessly creative writing … fabulously involving and beautifully performed' (HMV Choice)
'a lovely tone, a seamless legato, some delicious dissonances – perfectly gauged and subtly nuanced – and some probing recitatives’ (American Record Guide)
Toccata in C minor BWV911 [12'12]
Toccata in G major BWV916 [7'27]
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910 [10'22]
Toccata in E minor BWV914 [6'49]
Toccata in D minor BWV913 [11'42]
Toccata in G minor BWV915 [9'00]
Toccata in D major BWV912 [11'22]
Angela Hewitt returns to her beloved Bach with this stunning disc of some of the great master's most joyous keyboard music. The toccatas are youthful, improvisatory, virtuoso works, composed in the aftermath of Bach's trip in 1705 to Lübeck to hear the great Buxtehude (he travelled for ten days on foot to get there), perhaps the greatest organist of the time. Buxtehude was a master of the stylus fantasticus—a very unrestrained and free way of composing, using dramatic and extravagant rhetorical gestures; the influence of this technique can clearly be heard in the seven keyboard toccatas Bach composed sometime between 1705 and 1714.
Angela Hewitt's Bach playing has won unanimous praise from all quarters for its rhythmic vitality, tonal clarity and poetic warmth. This is another outstanding issue in what is widely recognized as the benchmark modern recordings of Bach's keyboard works.
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In 1703, at the age of eighteen, Johann Sebastian Bach was asked to try out the newly constructed Wender organ at the Neuekirche in Arnstadt – a small town not far from his birthplace, Eisenach. He must have played impressively because soon afterwards he was offered the post of organist. Having finished his formal studies, he was now able to develop his own ideas freely, and to continue absorbing as much as possible from the works of others. Not content to do this only in isolation, he asked for time off in 1705 in order to travel to Lübeck to hear the great Buxtehude (c1637–1707) at the Marienkirche. The fact that he made this journey on foot (a ten-day journey in each direction) attests to his determination and curiosity. It is possible that he was also interested in taking over from Buxtehude who, at 68 years of age, was looking for a successor. It seems that part of the deal, however, was to accept the hand of his thirty-year-old daughter – something which didn’t appeal to the young Johann Sebastian. After remaining in Lübeck for four months rather than the agreed four weeks, he returned to Arnstadt to face the ire of the town authorities. He was reprimanded for staying away so long, and criticized ‘for having hitherto made many curious variationes in the chorale, and mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the Congregation has been confused by it’. Bach answered that his journey had been necessary ‘to comprehend one and another thing about his art’ (‘eins und anderes seiner Kunst zu begreifen’), but the damage was done. The authorities also complained that he had allowed an ‘unfamiliar maiden to be invited into the choir loft and let her make music there’. This was no doubt his second cousin, Maria Barbara, whom he married in 1707.
Buxtehude was a master of the stylus fantasticus – a very unrestrained and free way of composing, using dramatic and extravagant rhetorical gestures. His compositions in this style, often called Praeludium, Praeambulum or Toccata, combined improvisatory passages (sometimes using recitative), with stricter, more imitative sections. This method of composition had its roots in the Italian toccatas and fantasies of the sixteenth century: those by Claudio Merulo (1533–1604), organist at St Mark’s in Venice, were especially innovative in their use of contrasting sections. In the seventeenth century both Frescobaldi and his student Froberger excelled in this art, the latter writing 25 toccatas for keyboard. It was almost as though the warm-up that a harpsichordist would go through when sitting down at the instrument, tossing off scales and arpeggios and showing off with a bit of improvisation, gradually evolved into a composition. In 1650, the author, scientist and inventor Athanasius Kircher described the stylus fantasticus in his work, Musurgia Universalis:
The fantastic style is suitable for instruments. It is the most free and unrestrained method of composing; it is bound to nothing, neither to words nor to a melodic subject; it was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues.
The influence of the stylus fantasticus can be heard in the seven keyboard toccatas of Bach, which were possibly begun as early as 1705, and completed sometime before 1714. He himself did not group them together as a collection, and none have come down to us in manuscript. They exist only in copies made by family members and students, showing a large number of variants. Unlike his keyboard suites and preludes and fugues, there is no evidence that he used the toccatas as teaching material in later years; perhaps he considered them only as early experiments. That is how his first biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel, described them in 1802 (Jugendübungen). Each toccata, nevertheless, has its own character and design, and is an excellent performance vehicle, showing off to great effect the player’s touch and brilliance (the word toccata comes from the Italian verb toccare, meaning ‘to touch’). No doubt Bach used these pieces for his own display at a time when his reputation was growing rapidly. It is not clear for which instrument they were intended – organ or harpsichord. Either is possible, and the piano makes an excellent case for them as well.
Since it is impossible to know the chronological order of the toccatas, I have presented them here in an arbitrary sequence, making what I hope is a satisfying recital.
The Toccata in C minor, BWV911 opens with a flourish, and quickly establishes the no-nonsense mood that pervades the work. A motet-like adagio then appears, the end of which returns briefly to the improvisatory style of the beginning. The rest of the toccata is taken up by one of Bach’s longest but most arresting fugues. Its very extended subject, with the teasing repetition of the opening motive, is typical of his younger years. After already going on for four pages, he introduces, after a pause, a second subject that is a terrific accompaniment to the original one, adding rhythmic impulse and excitement. Not quite content to end there, Bach returns briefly to an adagio, only to let loose in the final line with a presto descent to a low C.
The Toccata in G major, BWV916 is different from the others in that it is clearly in three movements. The opening allegro is somewhat concerto-like in its use of solo and ritornello passages. Scales, broken chords, and cascading solid chords are used to make a brilliant opener. The second movement is a lyrical adagio in E minor where a fair amount of embellishment seems to be called for. The Bärenreiter edition gives no fewer than three different versions – including one by Bach’s son Johann Christoph. The final fugue (marked ‘Allegro e presto’) is a gigue in the French style, using the characteristic dotted rhythm. Like many of Bach’s early fugues, this one has some passages that are awkward to play, yet it certainly doesn’t lack charm. At the end the texture unravels very quickly, leaving us surprised at the finish.
The Toccata in F sharp minor, BWV910 is, I think, the least well-known of the seven. It’s written in an unusual key for Bach’s time, and contains two fugues, quite different in character. After the ‘warming up’ section of scales and descending figures (which would certainly not be out of place on the organ), we come to a noble adagio that is very chromatic, the subject of which will reappear in the final fugue in a different guise. The rhythm is that of a sarabande. Bach’s embellishments seem only to be a start, and the performer can certainly add more here according to his taste. The first of the fugues is marked ‘Presto e staccato’ and its pointed subject no more than a descending scale with a short cadential trill attached. The semiquavers around it add brilliance. There is some rhythmic interest in a hemiola passage which suddenly sounds as though the time signature has switched from four to three beats in the bar. Following that, we have a rather startling section in which the same arpeggiando figure is stated 21 times in a strange series of harmonic progressions, a procedure we also find in the D minor toccata. This leads us to the final fugue in 6/8 time, where the chromatic theme of the adagio is livened up, but made to be no less expressive. Wanda Landowska writes of the toccatas as being ‘incoherent and disparate’ at first sight, mentioning this toccata as an example of that. The difficulty is in finding their shape. She goes on to say: ‘What strikes us above all is the unrelenting insistence with which Bach holds on to a motive, repeating it indefatigably on every step of the scale.’ That is certainly true, though the writing, as shown in this toccata, is nevertheless impassioned.
The Toccata in E minor, BWV914 is another well-constructed and appealing work. The main curiosity here is the origin of the concluding fugue. Large parts of it seem to be borrowed directly from an anonymous composition discovered in a Naples manuscript. The subject, which certainly has elements of the Italian violin style, is almost identical. The episodes, however, contain material by Bach that is more refined and complex than anything written by the mysterious Italian. Preceding it are three sections: a brief introduction in the lower register of the keyboard; a double fugue marked ‘Un poco Allegro’; and a cadenza-like adagio that is written over a descending bass line. The latter is marked ‘Praeludium’ in one copy made by a Bach student, which leads us to think that it was perhaps, along with the fugue, an independent composition before being recycled as part of the toccata.
The Toccata in D minor, BWV913 was possibly the first to be composed. It is one of the longest of the seven but, in a lively interpretation, holds our interest throughout. The counterpoint in its two fugues is slightly less complicated, making it easier for students to grasp. The other sections, however, require an excellent sense of timing and understanding of harmonic progressions which need to be innate. There are quick changes of mood and tempo in the opening pages, the bulk of which are occupied by a passage including the ‘sighing’ motif that was very prevalent at the time (and which we also hear in the early Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother, BWV992). Both fugues are built on fairly short subjects that stay rooted in D minor, rapidly moving from voice to voice. The concluding one is very orchestral in style, ending abruptly in the major key. In between the fugues we have another of those curious bridge passages where Bach seems to wander (as much as he ever wanders!) from key to key, repeating the same figuration. In this case the wandering has the effect of calming us down, and preparing us for the final allegro.
The Toccata in G minor, BWV915 has many distinctive features, including a cyclic feeling (the opening flourish returns at the end of the piece), and a concluding four-part fugue that obstinately remains in dotted rhythm throughout. In between we have a short adagio, and a cheerful allegro in B flat major which is in total contrast to the difficult, but very exciting fugue. Concerning the latter, only Bach could write so imaginatively on what seems at first like a very dull subject. With him, repetition of a motive only builds excitement and strength rather than causing us to lose attention. This is one fugue that, for me, is a perfect example of what the piano can bring to Bach. On the harpsichord it is relentless. On the piano one can lighten the second and fourth beats, giving the subject a welcome buoyancy which serves to enhance its power and character. The episodes can also be coloured differently, especially the one in E flat major which provides some welcome relief. The insistent character of the fugue is emphasized in a passage right before the end where part of the countersubject is presented in both hands simultaneously in parallel thirds.
The Toccata in D major, BWV912 is no doubt the most popular today. The brilliant opening bars, reminiscent of the Prelude and Fugue, BWV532 for organ in the same key, already contain a tremolo figure that will reappear later on. Then comes an allegro that happily exchanges the motifs between treble and bass. After its final flourish, Bach introduces an adagio in recitative style – the melody being interrupted by the tremolo figure, now heard as a distant murmur rather than a brilliant rattle. An expressive bridge, using the ‘sigh’ motif, leads us into a fairly tranquil fugue in F sharp minor. Another transition, this time marked ‘con discrezione’, suddenly turns into a presto in which the excitement can hardly be contained. It then breaks loose into a gigue fugue of tremendous energy and rhythm. Then Bach goes one step further and writes a truly virtuoso passage to finish with – or at least almost, as he returns to the improvised adagio style for the final cadence.
Angela Hewitt © 2002
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