Keyboard stars lead BachFest

Hewitt, Allard launch EMV line-up with bravura solos

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 No audience members allowed on the Chan Centre’s stage, however, for the next day’s Well-Tempered Clavier. That space was exclusively reserved for Hewitt and the sleek black bulk of her four-pedal Fazioli grand. The contrasting instruments of the successive recitals underscore the ongoing debate among keyboard soloists over which style better suits the interpretation of Bach: the brio and historicity of the harpsichord versus the expressive sonorities of the piano.

Bach himself lived right at the cusp of the transition between the two styles and, late in life, got to try out an early avatar of the “fortepiano.” His verdict, according to Hewitt’s programme notes: “interesting, but weak in the high register and too hard to play.”

Since then, however, the instrument has evolved to the point that Hewitt now finds it “ideal” to convey the “sprightliness, clarity, rapidity, warmth, strength and subtle shadings” that Bach demands. “The difficulty,” she concludes, “is in making it sound easy.” Under Hewitt’s graceful fingers, it looks and sounds so easy as to seem almost inevitable, like a force of nature running is unbidden course.

It was only in her pre-concert talk that she offered us a glimpse of the meticulous strategizing – one could almost call it choreography – that goes into this illusion of ease. She annotates her score, she revealed, with detailed fingering for each bar, so as to perfect Bach’s phrasing with only minimal recourse to the damper and sostenuto pedals.

Onstage, she appeared to be playing by memory, like Alard. But look closely and you could spot an inch-wide strip of electronic score scrolling across the front face of the Fazioli casing, just at Hewitt’s eye level. The notes flickered past at visibly variable rates, underlining the dynamic flexibility of her tempo.

The visual dimension of her performance was almost as mesmeric as her sound. Aside from her balletic fingering, she matched her body language to the tenor of each piece – the stately colonnade march of the A major fugue, the frisson of the Gminor prelude, the swirling eddies and upwelling fountain of the B major prelude and fugue.

She concluded the romp of the A major fugue with half-lunge straight at the keyboard, like a sprinter breasting a finish line. (At this he audience couldn’t help breaking into a light spatter of forbidden applause, even though it was mid-concert; Hewitt threw us a cautionary glare and got on with the scampering A minor prelude).

Not until the end of her two-hour marathon did she finally let slip the illusion of effortless ease. As she came back for repeated bows, she looked deservedly wrung-out. But just two days later, she was back performing an even longer Well-Tempered recital – Book Two, this time – in Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral.

Meanwhile, Vancouver's classical music devotees can look forward to another couple of weeks of Bach and Beyond from EMV. Upcoming highlights: mid-day baroque-inflected song cycle by 20th century titan Benjamin Britten on August 8, followed that same evening by a Bach, Beethoven and Brahms triple-header, both at Christ Church.

Then there's a repeat visit by Gli Angeli Genève, whose vocalists were show-stoppers in the 2017 BachFest. This year, the Swiss group returns with a full 20-piece orchestral ensemble for an evening of Bach and Teleman cantatas August 3rd at Christ Church, Vancouver.

And to cap it all, the same Swiss vocalists will join Vancouver’s own Pacific Baroque Orchestra for the Festival’s concluding concert, August 10 at the Chan Centre, including the Bach’s monumental Trauer Ode funeral cantata.

 

 

 

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