Music review: Pianist Angela Hewitt's 'Goldberg Variations' at Strathmore

THEATRICAL FLOURISH: Angela Hewitt filled the space.
THEATRICAL FLOURISH: Angela Hewitt filled the space. (Peter Hundert)
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hailed by admirers as a preeminent Bach interpreter, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt brought the composer's remarkable "Goldberg Variations" to Strathmore's concert hall on Thursday in a Washington Performing Arts Society event. This music offers a large dose of the unexpected: While spinning out 30 variations on a courtly aria, Bach atypically varies its somber bass line but not the melody -- an old baroque trick. (Contrary to apocryphal myths, Bach wrote the "Goldbergs" for nobody in particular -- no insomniac count paid him for it.)

The variations are fraught with questions for performers: Only a published score survives, specifying a one- or two-keyboard instrument. (I have heard the work played on pianos, harpsichords, organs and various string combinations.) Bach gives no hint of how loudly or softly and how fast or slow to play or how to shape phrases. Interpretations are left open-ended, ranging widely -- sometimes ludicrously so -- from dreamy fantasy to mechanical hammering.

The "Variations" are ravishing but also intimate, ruminative and personal -- fit for a modest recital space. But I found Hewitt's playing to be theatrical showmanship (on her Fazioli piano) clearly intended to impress a large concert hall audience. It leapt back and forth from an ultra adagio tempo (strung out randomly in a lingering rubato) to a blurred whirlwind race of technical prowess. Either way, Hewitt buried Bach's signature pulse, momentum and astounding contrapuntal relationships.

A cheering audience drew an encore: an arrangement of Bach's aria for soprano, flutes and continuo from the "Hunt" cantata.

-- Cecelia Porter

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