Bach superbly played

Canadian Angela Hewitt shows her mastery of baroque forms and modern keyboard.

Classical music

September 05, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC

Wait long enough and what is unfashionable returns to fashion.

At a master class in the early 1980s at the Eastman School of Music, Emanuel Ax listened to a student perform a prelude and fugue from Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." The well-known pianist neither evaluated the performance nor offered advice.

"I can't comment because I don't play Bach myself and I don't believe his music belongs on the modern piano," Ax said.

Rude, stupid and pompous, perhaps, but such was the prevailing wisdom. "Authenticity" was at high tide. Its proponents were gleefully making music lovers guilty because they had enjoyed the "benighted" Bach playing of such musicians as cellist Pablo Casals, organist Albert Schweitzer, pianist Edwin Fischer and conductor Willem Mengelberg.

According to the authenticists, these great musicians had been performing Bach in the Dark Ages -- not least because they had been using the wrong instruments. In Bach's time the word "clavier" meant either harpsichord, clavichord, spinet, virginal or even the organ. The modern piano was not to come into being for another century. And that, as far as the authenticists were concerned, was the end of the argument.

Fortunately, it wasn't. In the 15 years or so since, Bach's keyboard music has been reclaimed for the modern instrument by the performances of such pianists as Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode and, perhaps most persuasively of all, by Canadian Angela Hewitt.

Hewitt has been working her way through Bach's complete keyboard music for the Hyperion label. Her latest installment is Book II of the "WTC" -- she recorded Book I last year -- and it is every bit as superb as its predecessors.

As her notes in the booklet accompanying this two-CD release (CDA67303/4) reveal, Hewitt, the daughter of one of North America's most prominent organists, knows as much about baroque performance practice as any harpsichordist. But what makes her Bach playing so spectacular is her use of that information for interpretations that make Bach's keyboard music sound as it had been written for the modern piano.

Her playing in the faster preludes and fugues is animated and rhythmically flexible. The rapt expressiveness of her playing in the slower pieces, while never descending into sentimental Romantic anachronisms, shows her success in emphasizing Bach's melodic lines, as no harpsichordist can, by using the piano's capacity for sustaining a phrase. And the way she articulates the composer's dazzling counterpoint demonstrates that playing Bach has less to do with the instrument used than with a player's intelligence and imagination.

Ax excels with Brahms

As some readers may have surmised from the way I began this essay, Emanuel Ax is not one of my favorite musicians. Nevertheless, I think his new recording of Brahms' Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major (Sony Classical SK 63229), with Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is one of the finest of that mighty work in years.

Ax plays this piece with technical command -- there is neither faking nor simplification in the second movement's tricky sotto voce, legato double octaves or in the final movement's hazardous-at-high-speeds double-note scales in both hands. The pianist also has a rich piano sound that is especially suitable to Brahms, strong rhythm, power and authority.

What he doesn't have -- even here at his best -- is much imagination. He merely maintains the melodic flow, making almost chamber music of his dialogue with the orchestra.

In this piece, however, that is enough. There is a reason that the two Brahms piano concertos are sometimes called "symphonies with piano obbligato." If the conductor and orchestra are inspired enough, they can make a merely good pianist sound as if he is giving the performance of a lifetime.

That is certainly the case here. Haitink is one of the world's great conductors and his work here is even more remarkable than it was in earlier collaborations with pianists more to my liking -- Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca) and Claudio Arrau (Philips). Haitink detects all the small arsenal of explosive devices Brahms has hidden in the undergrowth. But the skill with which he detonates them never diverts a listener's attention from the Amazon-like flow of the composer's inspiration.

The playing of the Boston Symphony is the kind you hear only from one of the world's great ensembles: the strings are warm and the horns and winds sing both heroically and rapturously without sacrificing reliability. In the choppiest cross-currents of this music, this orchestra sails smoothly where others merely struggle.

Pollini's second try

More than 20 years ago, I heard the Boston orchestra and its then recently appointed music director, Seiji Ozawa, give a superbly fiery performance of Brahms' Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Maurizio Pollini.

Shortly thereafter, the great Italian pianist recorded the piece with Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic. But in that recording (still available on Deutsche Grammophon), Pollini's fires were banked by the conductor, who did not seem to wake up until midway through the first movement.

Fortunately, Pollini has finally re-recorded the piece in a much more sympathetic collaboration with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 447 041). This performance may not rage quite as wildly as those of Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin (with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra) or rhapsodize as affectingly as those of Clifford Curzon (with Szell conducting the London Symphony) or Emil Gilels (with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic) But I can't think of another recorded interpretation that ignites more instantaneously than this Pollini-Abbado collaboration or that burns thereafter with so steady and pure a flame.

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