Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations

Angela Hewitt (picture credit: St David’s Hall website )

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a solo piano concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring star pianist Angela Hewitt (pictured above). The programme consisted of one work – but what a work! – the monumental Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve been looking forward to this concert for weeks, not only because it was a rare opportunity to hear Angela Hewitt play, but also because although it’s a very special piece to me I’ve never heard the entire work played live before today.

The fact that I love this work so much is probably connected with my love of Jazz. Although ostensibly totally different idioms, the basic idea of ‘theme and variation’ unites these forms. Not much is known about Bach’s approach to the composition of this particular work but it wouldn’t surprise me if he improvised at least some of the variations. Above all, though, it’s when those walking bass lines for the left hand appear (e.g. near the end of the Aria) that Bach really swings; I always imagine Percy Heath or Ray Brown accompanying those passages on the double bass.

The sense of anticipation for this concert probably explains why I arrived earlier than usual:

I have eight different versions of the Goldberg Variations on CD, including one by Angela Hewitt and the two extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) recordings by fellow Canadian Glenn Gould. If I had to pick my favourite, however,  it would probably be one by Andras Schiff, but I find much to enjoy in all of them. I think the great thing about Bach’s music is that it’s so beautifully constructed that it can be played in a huge variety of ways and still be exquisite.

I’ve heard some people describe Angela Hewitt’s way of playing Bach as ‘affected and punctilious’ and others ‘elegant and crisply articulated’. They’re probably all describing the same thing, but some people like it and some don’t, it’s just a matter of taste.

Recordings are not the same as a live experience, and today underlined to me just how much more I enjoy live concerts. The concert lasted about 80 minutes (without an interval) – there are 30 variations altogether – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at St David’s with such rapt attention. For me the time went so quickly that I was quite startled when I heard the start of penultimate section (‘Quodlibet’) signalling that we were near the end. After the final note of the closing recapitulation of the opening Aria had subsided, the soloist kept her face down over the keyboard as if daring anyone to break the spell. Eventually she raised her head, smiled, and the applause began, followed by a standing ovation. The St David’s audience is usually rather reticent so that tells you how good this was. What better way can there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?

P.S. Angela Hewitt walked on and off stage with the aid of a metal crutch, suggesting some form of leg injury. On the unlikely event that she reads this, let me wish her a speedy recovery from whatever it is!

29 Responses to “Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations”

  1. John Peacock Says:

    Very glad to hear you say Schiff is your favourite for the Goldbergs. There seems to be a lot of praise for the Bach of Angela Hewitt and Murray Perahia, but I always felt Schiff stood clearly above them. For me, he has the right degree of human warmth to go with the crispness and clarity that the music needs. And somehow, his playing feels more 3D: he’s able to make the different voices stand out against each other in the way they might with a multi-keyboard harpsichord. I have a box of his complete Bach recordings, and it’s one of the pinnacles of my collection.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think Schiff wins the Well-tempered Clavier for me too!

    • telescoper Says:

      The Goldberg Variations were written for a Clavier with two manuals, and you can see that in the way some of the variations work (they would have involved switching between the two keyboards).

      I have to admit, though, that I am allergic to harpsichords and for me any slight advantage gained from them in terms of voicing is far outweighed by the fact that every single note played on a harpsichord sounds nerve-janglingly ghastly.

  2. I once heard the entire variations in a single afternoon at Cornell, but the pianist was not exceptional (and I forgot her name). The first and almost inhuman version of Gould’s version remains my favourite, though!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I inherited the Schiff and the Naxos recordings, and was determined to keep only one (I also throw books out from time to time), and Schiff was the clear winner.

    Can anybody recommend me the best harpsichord version please?

    • telescoper Says:

      I read in the programme notes that, before she became a musician, Angela Hewitt used to play the harpsichord.

      • I was recently at a concert by Kit Armstrong where he played both piano and harpsichord (though not at the same time—for different pieces). I really like the sound of the piano, but not for Baroque music. He also had a player piano brought on stage and turned around on his stool to watch it while it played (not Baroque, but rather modern—though not atonal—music).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Hardly a big deal Phillip, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman used to be surrounded by vast numbers of keyboards before electronics made it possible to condense them all into one.

      • I haven’t yet seen a “condensed keyboard” at a Baroque concert. Actually, I doubt that anyone could hear the difference between a good synthesizer and a harpsichord, or even piano.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a very special piece of music. I don’t have a recording of Angela Hewitt playing the piece, although I’ve been meaning to purchase one for a very long time.

    Many years ago, having heard so much praise for Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations, I bought his 1950s recording. While it had some merits, there was also eccentricity, and it did not move me much. So I then bought his 1981 recording, which was very different, but also somewhat eccentric, and again it did not have much of a positive emotional effect on me.

    I looked at reviews of recordings of the Goldberg Variations, feeling there must be more to the piece than I had experienced, and following that bought one by András Schiff. It was magnificent.

    For many years my standard way of relaxing after a busy, stressful event is to listen to Schiff’s Goldberg Variations.

    I once heard Schiff play the variations live. That was at a late night BBC Prom. The Albert Hall was absolutely full. I stood in the packed Arena. It was a wonderful concert.

  5. John Peacock Says:

    Anton: normally I would have guessed Trevor Pinnock would lead the pack when it came to Bach on the harpsichord. But I don’t like his version: right from the start the aria is way too slow and static. But there’s an appealing recording by Steven Devine on Chandos, with a nice mellow harpsichord sound.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: if you feel a jazz aspect to this music, you absolutely have to seek out the Goldberg disc by Dan Tepfer. He was an astronomy undergraduate here, and I was lucky enough to teach him. He is a fine jazz pianist, and has done something unique: he pairs each Goldberg variation with a jazz improvisation of his own. It’s very tastefully done, so that the two styles blend continuously, rather than having a set of disconcerting jumps.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have a very fine CD of Dan Tepfer with Lee Konitz. I think Alan Heavens put me on to it. I was aware of the Goldberg disc, but forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me.

      Less successfully, Keith Jarrett did a version of the Goldberg Variations but as a `straight’ performance.

      • Alan Heavens Says:

        I did. Nice to be reminded that I also have his CD of Bach and Jazz improvisations, plus one or two others. He’s playing all over the world these days, but has time for a blog, with an interesting piece that links the Trappist-1 planetary system to music. I also see now why not many pieces are written with rhythms in the ratio of 8 to 5. http://dantepfer.com/blog/?p=615

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You can clearly hear jazz in the opening movement of Bach’s 6th Brandenburg concerto, which swings along. And in a bit of the Arietta in Beethoven’s final piano sonata.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, the second (and last) movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 even has a bit of boogie-woogie in the left hand figures…

  7. Colin Rosenthal Says:

    I didn’t realise people still bought CDs. But anyway, the “Glenn Gould – The Complete Goldberg Variations” set not only has both his recordings, but also a lengthy and very entertaining (hilarious in places) interview in which he discusses the thinking behind his change of approach to the Goldbergs. You can find it on spotify at http://open.spotify.com/track/7ESUPHAyovg23PZ1ecd2Yj .

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      If you can’t hear the difference between wav files and mp3s then you don’t have a very good hifi system, I reckon.

      • telescoper Says:

        Or not very good ears!

      • Indeed. But if you think vinyl sounds more realistic than CD, then all hope is lost.

      • telescoper Says:

        I have a lot of recordings on vinyl that I bought before CDs existed. The thing is, though, you get used to the sound and when you then buy a digital version it’s often uncomfortable. A lot of my Dad’s old 78s sound like they were recorded in a garage, but that gives them a distinctive character that’s not there on modern recordings.

      • That’s like preferring black-and-white photography. For similar reasons, some might prefer it to colour, but no-one can argue that it is more realistic.

      • I know someone, a huge Bob Dylan fan, who used to have a record player which spun too fast. After a few years, she was astounded at how deep his voice really was.

      • The old shellac records had a background hiss. Noted jazz and modern-beat-combo drummer Pete York said that drummers trying to copy the sound of a record came up with the idea of using one brush on the snare to re-create the hiss. I think it was a joke but I’m not sure; stranger things have happened.

    • telescoper Says:

      I do still buy CDs occasionally, but the ones I’m referring to are quite old purchases…

      I also have one recording on vinyl discs…

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