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Hewitt Goldberg concert invariably brilliant

  • Jul 16, 2012
By Terry McQuilkin From The Register-Guard July 16, 2012  Capping the Oregon Bach Festival’s exploration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, pianist Angela Hewitt delivered an unforgettable account of the work on Saturday evening at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. The concert sold out weeks ago — hardly a shock given Hewitt’s international reputation as a Bach interpreter — and more chairs were placed on stage to accommodate additional listeners. With the repeats, the music lasts roughly 80 minutes. Although the Canadian pianist took almost all of Bach’s repeats, the time flew by quickly for most of us, for we were drawn in by a performance that blended intelligence, passion and communicativeness. Hewitt prefers Fazioli pianos — the Italian-made instruments have a reputation for brightness and clarity — and the Fazioli on Beall’s stage probably contributed to the transparency of her playing. But the keyboardist’s extraordinary attention to detail, her beautifully executed ornaments, her judicious use of pedal and her faultless control were the key factors that allowed the listener to make countless discoveries in this familiar composition. Consisting of an aria with 30 variations, Bach’s masterwork stands out as one of the signal works in variation form. The aria’s symmetrical two-part structure and harmonic sequence remain constant, over which the composer produced a wealth of melodic and contrapuntal variety. The variations are grouped in threes, with the last of each three (except variation 30) being a canon. Bach composed the “Goldberg” Variations” for a two-manual harpsichord. Pianists need to be resourceful in finding ways to allow each melodic line (usually three at once) to emerge with pellucidity. The second of each three-variation group is a toccata, and that was where we experienced some of Hewitt’s flashiest (and with the frequent hand-crossing, most visually arresting) playing, particularly in variations 11, 14, 23 and the showy penultimate variation. Many of the variations are based on dance forms, and rhythmic vitality Hewitt infused in several of the movements (Nos. 4, 7 and 10 for example) made it hard to stay seated. Even when her playing was quiet and subtle, she could infuse boundless energy and joy into her sound, as she did in Variation 17 and the canonic variation that followed. Several times, Hewitt mined the serious side of human emotion, and she proved unafraid to make fairly liberal use of rubato. Two of the canonic movements are in G minor, and the pianist delivered these with introspection and pensiveness. The entire set’s emotional peak is the very slow 25th variation, also in G minor. Here, the soloist explored the depths of Bach’s highly chromatic musical rhetoric, creating a mood of intense pathos. The final variation is a quodlibet (a kind of 18th century mash-up of folk songs), which Hewitt delivered with aplomb, segueing immediately into the aria’s literal reprise. Waiting several seconds to let the music die away, listeners in the 540-seat auditorium applauded vigorously, spurring her to deliver with warmth her signature encore: Myra Hess’ transcription of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Bach’s Cantata, BWV 147. Terry McQuilkin, an adjunct instructor of composition at the University of Oregon, reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.