It was over twenty years ago, back in 1996-7, that the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt set down her first interpretations of J.S. Bach's magnificent keyboard Partitas. She explains in the accompanying notes that she felt the time was right to re-evaluate her interpretations, this time using her own Fazioli piano, in the beautiful Kulturzentrum Gustav Mahler in Toblach/Dobbiaco, Italy. She has made similar undertakings with the Goldberg Variations and the two books of the Well-tempered Clavier.
My first introduction to the pianist was actually via her earlier 1990's Partita cycle, and such was the positive impression it made that I've sought out many of her recordings over subsequent years. I thought it would be interesting, initially, to do a head-to-head comparison of the instruments used in both recordings. Hewitt chose a Steinway for her first, housed in the Beethovensaal, Hannover. Its warm, rich tone is endearing, with the Hannover acoustic resonant, yet intimate. The Fazioli is a much brighter instrument, and gives forth a much crisper sound. The Dobbiaco venue is less reverberant. At the end of the day, it will depend on your preference. Whilst I find both most agreeable, for me the Fazioli has the edge. The greater clarity in the more recent traversal marginally facilitates more detail and delineation, a quality I find more beneficial in the music of Bach.
These days, in my experience, it's more common to encounter performances of Bach's keyboard works on the modern concert grand. My familiarity with the Partitas has been almost completely with piano versions by such performers as Gould, Hewitt (first cycle), Schiff, Perahia, Goode and Tureck, though I do possess the Kirkpatrick and Pinnock harpsichord versions. I much prefer the modern piano, as the instrument provides a wider colouristic range and greater expressive scope.
How well the Fazioli responds to Hewitt’s unique artistry. I'm totally won over by her expressive playing, subtle shadings and nuance. Her immaculate finger work ensures that everything is cleanly delivered, with contrapuntal strands teased out with utmost definition. Ornamentation is tasteful and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the music. She observes repeats and uses the full dynamic range of the piano. There's so much fresh air and sunlight. Tempi are just how I like them. Sarabandes are gorgeously contoured and dance movements sparkle with glitter and bounce.
So, to sum up, the cycle is beautifully recorded in a warmly welcoming ambience with an agreeable sense of space and perspective. This is a recording which showcases the exquisite artistry of this pianist. Hewitt's intelligent approach, impeccable musicianship and authoritative technique serve the music well. Her own scholarly liner contribution is an added bonus.
Perhaps I should leave the last word to Angela Hewitt herself, who says of these works, ‘Bach says so much in these pieces, and the cumulative effect is really something that will leave you in awe.’