Chan Shun Concert Hall at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts | Map
Angela Hewitt has made Bach’s music the cornerstone of her brilliant, exuberant artistry. Join us as she continues the second season of her remarkable four-year journey through all of Bach’s keyboard works. In this concert she plays Bach’s 24 preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.
“The outstanding Bach pianist of her generation” (The Sunday Times, London)
Please join us at 6:30PM for a pre-concert chat with Angela Hewitt and Ian Alexander.
This concert is generously supported by Dr. Katherine E. Paton
To download/view the programme page and notes, click here.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Well Tempered Clavier – Book I
BWV 846-869 (1722)
No. 1: Prelude and Fugue in C major, BwV 846
No. 2: Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BwV 847
No. 3: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major, BwV 848
No. 4: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor, BwV 849
No. 5: Prelude and Fugue in D major, BwV 850
No. 6: Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BwV 851
No. 7: Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BwV 852
No. 8: Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BwV 853
No. 9: Prelude and Fugue in E major, BwV 854
No. 10: Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BwV 855
No. 11: Prelude and Fugue in F major, BwV 856
No. 12: Prelude and Fugue in F minor, BwV 857
No. 13: Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major, BwV 858
No. 14: Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor, BwV 859
No. 15: Prelude and Fugue in G major, BwV 860
No. 16: Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BwV 861
No. 17: Prelude and Fugue in A flat major, BwV 862
No. 18: Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor, BwV 863
No. 19: Prelude and Fugue in A major, BwV 864
The six years that Johann Sebastian Bach spent as Capellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt- Cöthen (1717–23) were some of the happiest of his life. The young prince (only twenty-three years old in 1717) was a viola da gamba player of great skill and had an eighteen-piece orchestra of excellent caliber. Bach was delighted to work for someone who both “loved and understood music.” On taking up his new duties, Bach relinquished the composition of organ and choral music that had occupied him previously in Weimar. Only a few cantatas were composed to celebrate royal birthdays and special occasions. Cöthen was in Saxony where Calvinism predominated at the time, and there was little music in the local churches (with the exception of the Lutheran Agnuskirche where Bach worshipped and went to practice the organ). He was now expected to produce secular instrumental music, and he did so, as was his custom, with great energy and all his heart and soul. From the Cöthen period date the Brandenburg Concertos, the four orchestral Suites, the Partitas, Suites, and Sonatas for solo and accompanied violin and cello, and the French Suites for keyboard. Bach and the prince became close friends, and he often accompanied the prince on his journeys. Upon returning from a trip to Karlsbad in 1720, Bach was confounded by the news that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died and was already buried. With four children ranging from the age of five to twelve to bring up, he could not remain a widower for long, and within a year had married Anna Magdalena Wilcke (other spellings of her name being Wilcken, Wölcken, Wülcke, or Wülcken), sixteen years his junior and a fine soprano. Their marriage was celebrated on December 3, 1721, with four barrels and thirtytwo carafes of wine — almost a hundred liters!
As his duties at court were not totally time-consuming, Bach was able to devote himself to the musical education of his family. In 1720, when his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann was nine years old, he presented him with a notebook in which they began to compile pieces that contain, among other things, first drafts of what we know today as the Little Preludes, the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, and eleven of the first twelve Preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier. It was always Bach’s aim to develop musical intelligence from the very beginning, along with technique— something which is often overlooked today. Many of the pieces in the Clavierbüchlein are in Wilhelm Friedemann’s own hand, as he was undoubtedly learning how to compose.
It is impossible to give exact dates of composition of many of Bach’s works, as they were often compiled from already-existing material. In the case of The Well- Tempered Clavier Book I, Bach wrote the date 1722 on the title page of the fair copy:
“The Well-Tempered Clavier or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones including those with a major third or Ut Re Mi as well as those with a minor third or Re Mi Fa. For the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study composed and prepared by Johann Sebastian Bach at present Capellmeister to His Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt- Cöthen, and director of His Chamber Music. Anno 1722”.
To satisfactorily explain the adjective well-tempered is to tread on dangerous ground. Treatises have been written on the subject, and even today the debate continues. Tuning a keyboard instrument always has to be a compromise, because the intervals of a perfect fifth and a perfect third are incompatible with each other and with a pure octave. In Bach’s day, the common practice was to use the mean tone system, which retained the purity and sweetness of the major third. This meant, however, that it was impossible to play in all twenty-four keys because of “errors” that would occur in the more remote ones. As musicians became more and more dissatisfied with these restrictions, they turned to equal temperament which favors the interval of a perfect fifth, and which makes each key tolerable (although inevitably one can argue that much is lost by making everything uniform, especially as regards the character of each key). In between these two systems there can be many modifications, and it is thought that Bach must have used his own method of tuning. The only, rather vague, testimony we have on the subject comes from his obituary, written by his son C.P.E. Bach and his pupil J.F. Agricola, where it states that: “In the tuning of harpsichords he achieved so correct and pure a temperament that all the keys sounded pure and agreeable. He knew no keys which, because of impure intonation, one must avoid.”
In 1715 Johann Caspar Fischer had composed a set of preludes and fugues in twenty different keys called Ariadne Musica . Four years later, Johann Mattheson wrote a user’s manual in figured-bass playing that gave two examples in each of the twenty-four keys. It was left to Bach, however, to give us the first real music in keys like C-sharp Major and E-flat minor. Twenty-two years later, in 1744, he compiled another twenty-four preludes and fugues to complete what is now known as the “48.” It is an inexhaustible treasure trove of the greatest possible music, combining contrapuntal wizardry with his immense gift for expressing human emotion in all its forms. Bach amazes us by absolutely never running out of steam. In The Well- Tempered Clavier, we find a piece to suit every mood and every occasion.
In Bach’s time the word clavier did not denote any keyboard instrument in particular, but meant harpsichord, clavichord, spinet, virginal, or even the organ. An inventory taken at the time of his death lists many different instruments, but gives no details beyond their size and value. Bach reportedly preferred the clavichord for its ability to produce shadings and even vibrato, although surely its extreme delicacy must have made anything but the quietest pieces rather frustrating. Perhaps for this reason, Bach’s friend, the great organ and harpsichord builder Gottfried Silbermann, set about working on a fortepiano (following the first attempt at one by Cristofori), which Bach tried before his death. It is said that he found it interesting, but weak in the high register and too hard to play (complaints often voiced by pianists today about some modern grands!). His music requires great sprightliness, clarity, rapidity, warmth, strength, and subtle shadings that have to be matched by both instrument and player. If Bach’s music sounds “wrong” on the piano, then surely most of the blame must lie with the pianist. The instrument itself is, I find, ideal, as it can be made to sing and dance as Bach demands. The difficulty is in making it sound easy.
The Prelude No. 1 in C Major of Book I has become one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. Perhaps because of its utter simplicity, people feel they have to do something with it — to interpret it. The biggest culprit was Gounod who wrote his Ave Maria by adding a sugary tune above the broken arpeggios — something that has fatally distorted our perception of this simple study in line. What seems easy on paper, though, is extremely difficult to play (as anyone who has attempted this piece knows). An even tone, a perfect legato without the use of pedal, a steady pulse, an awareness of harmony and how, for instance, a diminished-seventh chord can add intensity — all of these things can be learned here. To that is added Bach’s sense of inner peace for which we also must strive. The four-voice Fugue in C Major is very affirmative, using the device of stretto (introducing the subject in another voice before the last entrance is finished) to cumulative effect. The technical difficulties of playing this Fugue are so much more advanced than those of the Prelude that many a student will give up in despair!
Prelude No. 2 in C minor can easily sound harsh and ugly. Although it is certainly a busy piece, the touch must remain buoyant, and the harmonic outline interesting. The cadenza at the end should sound improvised without losing its way. The decisiveness of the ending in the major mode is carried over into the three-voice Fugue. Articulation is important here: to distinguish the subject from the two countersubjects, you often have to play both legato and detached with the same hand simultaneously. This is one of the hardest things for a student to do, but absolutely necessary in Bach if the different voices are to be distinguishable.
With the arrival of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major we have a marvelous change in
color. We also have the first of the Preludes that is really dance-like. Lightening the quaver at the end of the bar will give it that extra swing. Then Bach ties that third beat over the bar which, for contrast, gives it an accent. Halfway through the Prelude, he changes from double counterpoint to broken arpeggios, which build up to the brilliant ending. The Fugue continues in the same joyful mood with a subject that skips about in sixths. For a very large hand this can be a clumsy piece, as the proliferation of sharps means you are mostly playing between the black and white keys (even clumsier on the harpsichord where the keys are narrower). Yet, it needs to sound as though you’re having fun. Bach certainly enjoyed writing something challenging in this new key!
I like to think of the Preludes and Fugues falling into groups of four, and prefer to present them that way in concert (unless I am doing a complete cycle). Considered in this way, each first Prelude seems to have an arresting beginning, and each last Fugue is of considerable dimension and emotional power (the possible exception being the G minor Fugue, but even here a definite conclusion is reached). The last Prelude and Fugue of the first group, No. 4 in C-sharp minor, is undoubtedly one of the greatest of the “48.” The Prelude is in fact a loure — a French theatrical dance related to the French gigue but much more languid. The other fine example in Bach’s keyboard music is in the fifth French Suite: it is expressive but not sentimental. In the original version of the Clavierbüchlein , no ornaments were added, but in later revisions many appeared. The interpreter should feel free to decorate along the same lines. The beginning of the Fugue immediately announces something special. The subject contains just four notes that, when placed together on the staff, form the outline of a cross lying on its side. Such a subject, in Bach’s hands, will inevitably produce an emotionally powerful work. This is the first of two five voice fugues in Book I, and the first is written in stile antico (the Baroque adaptation of Renaissance polyphony in four or more parts). The first ten entries of the subject are not accompanied by any definable countersubject — solely a descending figure in crotchets that is also inverted. The mood is one of solemn introspection. After a cadence in the relative major (E), Bach introduces the first of two countersubjects — this one in quavers, which begins to awaken us from our meditation. It drifts in, appearing first in the upper voice. Fourteen bars later the second countersubject announces itself, characterized by a supplicating repetition of the second note. From then on the whole Fugue is built around these three subjects, culminating in an intense dissonance over a pedal point, four bars from the end. Then the tension rapidly dissolves and Bach ends with a cadence in the major key (called tierce de Picardie ) — with the pedal point still resonating. These final bars are not always played softly, but Czerny tells us that Beethoven (who played most of the “48” by the time he was eleven years old) interpreted it this way. Surely the emotion expressed here is forgiveness and does not need to be forced. We return to lightheartedness with Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major. The touch must be light, otherwise your right arm will seize up before the end of the Prelude! The left hand can make it dance. Bach ends with a flourish and two dramatic rests requiring an appropriate gesture. The Fugue is in French Overture style, necessitating some double-dotting (holding notes for longer than their notated value). Halfway through, Bach begins to use only the opening, swirling part of the subject, tossing it around from voice to voice. The joyful, ceremonial chords at the end are more effective if an extra octave is added to the bass line.
The whole character of Prelude No. 6 in D minor depends on how you play the first two repeated Ds in the left hand. They give the pulse and set things going, ready for the right hand to enter with its broken chords. In these, it is necessary to find the notes that move (rather than the ones that remain stable) and bring out their line. The left hand becomes increasingly melodic, the right hand breaks loose in a series of descending diminished-seventh chords, and the Prelude ends defiantly. After this, the Fugue can seem a little sober, but its singing style gives us some tender moments. The subject, which has a rhetorical pause, the phrasing of which is originally by Bach, is the first one in the “48” to be inverted (turned upside down).
The most substantial Prelude in Book I is No. 7 in E-flat Major — the only one of the first twelve not to have been included in Wilhelm Friedemann’s notebook. It is in three parts: a preamble which improvises around a pattern of semiquavers, a chorale-like fugato introducing a subject that rises in fourths, and a double fugue combining these two musical ideas. I think it is important to find a common pulse for these three sections so that Bach’s counterpoint can flower naturally. This is one of the most difficult Preludes for fingering and clarity of texture. The whole thing must build up to the wonderful pedal point at the end (this Prelude reminds me of the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue for organ, BWV 552 — also in E-flat Major). After such a serious-minded Prelude, Bach surprises us with a wonderfully witty three-voice Fugue. The chromaticisms we find in the descent into C minor (bars15–17), are echoed, teasingly, in the last bar.
Then, without warning, we are immediately in another world, and in the key of E-flat minor. A feeling of solitude permeates Prelude No. 8, which is one of the most moving moments in the “48.” The tempo is that of a slow Sarabande — dignified and noble. It is an impassioned aria of great eloquence. The deceptive cadence in bar 29 is especially poignant (and for a fleeting moment may make us think of the same progression in Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude). The simple beauty of the Fugue subject comes to us from far away, without breaking the mood set by the Prelude. One by one the three voices enter, without giving us any definite countersubject. In fact, Bach becomes rather obsessed with the subject, giving it several different treatments. In bar 19 we have the first stretto — a very close overlap between the middle and treble voices, only two beats apart. In bar 24 we have another, but with the middle voice in a slightly augmented form using a dotted rhythm. Six bars later, after yet another stretto , we hear the subject turned upside down for the first time. This passage culminates in the strong bass entry in bar 44. The overlapping continues unabated, and brings us to a halfclose in bar 61. Then we have the first fully augmented entry of the subject, given to the bass. Before it is finished, we will hear the original form in the middle voice, and the inverted one in the treble. The augmented version is then sung by each voice in turn, finishing with the treble (bar 77). This is a wonderful moment where, for me, time seems suspended. We think Bach is going to finish with a descent to the final chord, but instead he surprises us and rises to the major key. I feel it is his way of expressing hope in the Eternal, rather than despair. This Fugue is notated in D-sharp minor (the enharmonic key of E-flat minor), probably because it was originally written in D minor before its inclusion in The Well- Tempered Clavier. Some editions print it, however, in E-flat minor. Neither key is easy to read (six sharps or flats), and in this instance I don’t feel that it matters which key you learn it in (personally, I go for E-flat minor). With the case of its counterpart in Book II, I do feel that it should be “felt” in D-sharp minor, although if I had to explain why, I’m not sure that I could! The important thing is to make this piece expressive, and not have it sound like a study in fugal construction.
The Well-Tempered Clavier was never intended to be performed as a cycle of pieces in the manner of, for example, the “Goldberg” Variations. The one piece of evidence we have that it was performed at all in Bach’s day comes from the son of one of his students, Gerber, who wrote:
“At the first lesson he set his Inventions before him. When he had studied these through to Bach’s satisfaction, there followed a series of suites, then the Well-Tempered Clavier. This latter work Bach played altogether three times through for him with his unmatchable art, and my father counted these among his happiest hours, when Bach, under the pretext of not feeling in the mood to teach, sat himself at one of his fine instruments and thus turned these hours into minutes.”
There is no real reason why we cannot mix them up and play them out of order (as long as we do not do what Busoni did, and exchange some Fugues for others when he felt they were ill matched!). I am always amazed, nevertheless, at how Bach has the knack of changing mood so rapidly, yet so effectively. This is the case with Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E Major. The grace, charm, and good nature of the Prelude completely dispel the melancholy of the previous work. It is a pastorale , and was once attached to the sixth French Suite in E Major (it is found in a copy of the Suite made by the above-mentioned Gerber). The Fugue makes me think of three village gossips chattering away at once. Right up to the end they are each trying to get a word in (with Bach using just the opening two notes of the subject by that point!).
The key of E minor brings us some arresting music. Prelude No. 10, in the original version in the Clavierbüchlein , was made up of chords only — solid in the right hand, broken in the left. There was no haunting melody. That was added later — as was the Presto that forms the second part. By adding these things, Bach turns it into an orchestral piece — one can imagine an oboe solo, accompanied by strings and continuo. For a pianist, the challenge is to make it sound Baroque, and not like Chopin. The Presto (a rare tempo marking in Bach’s own hand) is built, like the opening, on a descending bass line, and leads us brilliantly into the only two-voice Fugue in the “48.” It is amazing how much energy is to be found in so thin a texture! Bach has fun with a hemiola (switching from three to two accents in a bar), and flagrantly breaks the rules by writing, for two brief moments, in consecutive octaves. There is much humor in his brilliance.
Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F Major should not be approached before the student has mastered the Two Part Invention in A Major. It is so similar to the Prelude and has the same difficulty made slightly easier: playing long trills evenly in one hand while the other is simultaneously dealing with a lot of semiquavers. Both share the same dance-like time signature of 12/8. The Fugue is a passepied (we find another example of this dance in the fifth Partita). It is probably the easiest of the Fugues in Book I — though none is easy.
No. 12 in F minor makes an appropriate end to the first half. Here the Prelude is an allemande (without the characteristic upbeat) in which the note values are precisely indicated to obtain a perfect legato and a rich contrapuntal texture. It is expressive but flowing, and has the processional character of that dance. The Fugue subject has strength, dignity, and solemnity. Its combination of chromaticisms and expressive intervals give it great intensity. It is written in quadruplecounterpoint (subject with three countersubjects), and at times is very difficult for the player to untangle. The episodes (which give relief from subject entries, and instead have free counterpoint using a motive or two from material already presented) add a feeling of tenderness. The highlight of the Fugue, for me, is when the alto enters with the subject in the relative major key (A-flat) in bar 34. It is like a voice from afar. Bach nevertheless ends this Fugue firmly on the ground, with the last entry of the subject ringing out in the bass.
The second half of Book I opens with a perfectly matched Prelude and Fugue in the bright key of F-sharp Major. Prelude No. 13 is a two-part invention where syncopations produce continuous suspensions. Some modulations into minor keys bring a few dark tones to what is otherwise a fresh and airy piece. The Fugue continues in the same mood. In the first episode (bar 7), Bach introduces a new motive, which later develops into a second countersubject. This theme gives the Fugue a touch of gentleness, and Bach decides to end the piece by having it appear in each of the three voices, in turn.
Prelude No. 14 in F-sharp minor is springy and energetic, with much imitation going on between the voices. The seemingly ordinary tenor part in the first bar (quavers, punctuated by rests) takes on a far greater role halfway through — when Bach turns it into chords. The lyrical four-part Fugue is of an unusual beauty. Its subject creeps from F-sharp up to C-sharp using a devious, chromatic route, before descending back to the tonic. The countersubject is based on a sighing, two-note figure that gives the piece its sorrowful character. The subject appears twice, inverted: in the alto in bar 20, and in the bass in bar 32. The climax is reached with the bass entry in bar 29, after which it calms down to the final reiteration that ends the piece — this time in the major key.
The Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G Major, which shares the same joyful spirit as the two Brandenburg Concertos in that key, gives the player an opportunity to show off. The Prelude has two time signatures: 24/16 for the right hand, and 4/4 for the left hand. Is that simply to indicate that all semiquavers are triplets, or to warn us against going too fast? It certainly has to have bounce. Bach has several tricks up his sleeve for this virtuoso Fugue. The subject, which centers on a written-out turn, does not take long to appear upside down; neither does the countersubject. Then he decides to omit its second bar totally, making it more concise (bar 51), and to permit a stretto . Despite all the notes, the Fugue should remain graceful and playful, and reach its conclusion triumphantly over the pedal point in the bass.
The trill that opens Prelude No. 16 in G minor would certainly be easier to execute on the violin or a woodwind instrument — on the keyboard it is not easy to coordinate with the left hand (and is even more difficult to do when the parts are switched). This trill should have direction and go somewhere — either build to the following bar, or have a swell in the middle — anything but remain static. This is a reflective piece, with a particularly beautiful last line. The Fugue is one of those pieces by Bach that can sound equally convincing played in two completely contrasting ways: either quite slowly and solemnly with a legato touch, or more upbeat with a perky tempo and distinct articulations. Having tried both, I opted for the latter. Landowska spoke of it as expressing torment and grief; Tovey marked itMaestoso . I hear the subject played by a bassoon, and found that in the more alert tempo, Bach’s counterpoint became so much clearer (things can get a little crowded during the stretto in bars 15–18). A minor key in Bach by no means denotes something solemn, as any of the dance suites in minor mode demonstrate. The last, conclusive entry of the subject in the tenor abruptly ends the Fugue on the major third.
Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Major opens with one of the most attractive Preludes in Book I. The rhythmic motif which appears in thirty-seven of the forty-four bars is one that Bach frequently used to denote joy (I immediately think of the first variation of the “Goldberg” variations). The mood is very dancelike and poised. The four-part Fugue has a beautiful shape; in the German-speaking world it is given the title “Cathedral” Fugue. The lyrical subject, which is simply two broken three-note chords landing on the dominant is perfectly woven into the texture, acquiring different shades in different registers. On the technical side, it is a difficult study in legato fingering.
Prelude No. 18 in G-sharp minor is a gently swinging three-part invention using the opening melodic fragment in every voice and in almost every bar — sometimes shortened, and often inverted. It is especially expressive when it reaches the high A in bar 18. The Fugue subject is angular and stubborn, with its repeated notes at the end, but they, along with the punctuated quavers (later chords) of the countersubject give it direction and bite. The texture lightens up a bit before coming to a passage very difficult to play clearly (bars 32–33). The piece ends with the same four notes in the same position as the A-flat Major Fugue, but in a totally different mood.
Prelude and Fugue No. 19 in A Major is a special case. The Prelude is innocent enough, although the three voices are really engaged in a strict mini-fugue (fughetta ). With the Fugue, however, we have one of the most extraordinarily quirky pieces by Bach that is also fiendishly difficult to play. The subject begins with an exclamation (perhaps “Hey!” or “Ouch!”), then proceeds to jump upwards in fourths. Once the three voices get going, we have numerous crossrhythms and suspensions that have to be brought out independently, no matter how awkward it is to do so with only two hands. It would be much easier to have this Fugue played by a string trio! Then, to further challenge the player and add to the excitement, Bach introduces runs in semiquavers to accompany the zigzagging subject. It is important to retain the mood of playfulness and stay calm! Tovey suggests picking a tempo which is “not unplayable or unenjoyable after reasonable practice.” Hubert Parry, in his biography of Bach (published in 1909), described this Fugue as “capricious and willful, but not attractive” and deemed it a “comparative failure.” If Beethoven did indeed play most of the “48,” I can see him delighting especially in this wonderfully crazy piece.
Prelude No. 20 in A minor is in 9/8, just like the previous Fugue, yet should sound totally contrasting. The harmonies do not move a lot within each bar (many bars stay on the same chord), so a lively tempo seems appropriate, and it begins rather nervously with those written-out trills in the left hand. The Prelude is short, which is a good thing, because the Fugue is very long. Many people criticize the latter for this reason, saying that it is too academic and tedious. I never tire of its marvelous subject and the multiple stretti (also using the inversion) which take us on a journey through many keys. It is a showpiece, not for the performer’s virtuosity, but for Bach’s. The tempo is linked to its character, which refuses to be hurried (and to the need for clarity in the partplaying). There is a curiosity at the end: Bach writes a pedal point, to be held underneath the four voices, that is unplayable with only two hands. Did he write this Fugue for a harpsichord with pedals, or for organ, or did he simply think that a third hand could be standing by at the ready? Without the low note, the ending certainly sounds weak, considering the immense buildup to that point. On the modern piano we are lucky to have the sostenuto pedal (or middle pedal) that will hold this note for us, if we can catch it at a time when we are playing nothing else. It takes some doing, but solves the problem very nicely!
The last group of four in Book I begins with the refreshing Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major. The toccata-like Prelude is very popular with piano students, who do not always find it easy to play the broken chords evenly (think of a violin here). The runs must also be without bumps when one hand takes over from the other. More problems arise on the second page where it suddenly becomes like an improvisation (the markings Adagio and Presto in some editions never appeared in Bach’s hand). The chords must certainly be in French overture style (full sounding and doubledotted), and the tempo relaxed, but the dazzling scales should retain a sense of pulse. The timing here is very hard to teach and must be felt. The last bar is made most effective by disappearing into thin air. The jaunty Fugue is written in three-part counterpoint, which is tricky to distinguish when playing. The main problem is to separate the bell-like notes of the first countersubject from the semiquavers — both, of course, often played by the same hand (the latter usually end up in jerky groups of two). It is easy to forget that once you have chosen an articulation for a subject or countersubject, it should be adhered to as often as possible.
Another sublime moment arrives with Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat minor. The Prelude is funeral music, and fills us with grief and sorrow. There is tenderness, though, and a quiet sense of reaching out. Even in this chordal texture it is important to clarify the part-playing, and not blur it with pedal. Any repeated quavers should be made completely legato by not lifting the key all the way between repetitions. The stillness achieved here is held over into the beginning of the five-voice Fugue — another one written in stile antico . The subject is drastically simple: a fall of a fourth is answered by four descending crotchets. It is, however, the leap of a minor ninth after the rest that pierces the heart. There is no countersubject, but rather numerous stretti , culminating in a five-part one in bars 67–71. It has one other unusual feature — parallel entries of the subject in bar 55. The key of B Major would have been a new and difficult key in Bach’s day.
The clarity and light of Prelude and Fugue No. 23 come as balm after the intensity of the previous piece. The Prelude, based on turns, is a three-part invention that adds a fourth part in the last line. The first four notes of the Fugue are identical to those of the Prelude, but whether this is intentional or not must remain conjecture. I love its gentle transparency, which for some reason reminds me of Christmas. Bach inverts the subject twice (bars 18 and 20), making it sound more quizzical. A lot of Baroque fingerings (avoiding the passage of the thumb) are required to play the runs while holding other notes (i.e. 3-4-5-3-4-5). The ending, with the soprano and tenor in parallel motion, makes us smile.
Bach does not choose to end Book I brilliantly. He goes the opposite way and writes music that would not be out of place in the B minor Mass. The Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in that same key is one of the hardest to bring off in performance unless it is played at the end of a cycle. It is as though it needs the preceding twenty-three to make its full impact. The tempo markings are Bach’s own: Andante is an indication not to take the Prelude too slowly, and Largo befits the gravity of the Fugue. The Prelude seems like a transcription of a duet for two woodwind instruments, with the steady walking bass of the continuo underneath. It is the only Prelude in Book I to be written in binary form with repeats (we shall have this often in Book II). The chromaticisms towards the end hint at what is to come in the Fugue — otherwise it is beautifully serene. The Fugue is one of those which we can tell from the outset will not be easy to deal with. Its desolate, sighing subject (the two-note slurs are original Bach) fittingly covers all twelve notes of the scale and modulates to the dominant. In the course of this very long Fugue, Bach sometimes uses only half the subject, or even just the first three notes (bars 19 and 28). From the very beginning the player must have a feeling for the structure of the whole piece and a map in mind of where it is going. The severity of the expositions (blocks of subject entries) is offset by the beautiful tenderness of three of the episodes — those in bars 17–20, 26–29, and especially that in bars 65–68, which is like a silent prayer. They are completely (and unusually) made up of new material that has nothing to do with subject or countersubject. After this, it builds up rapidly: half of the subject is sung by the tenor; the whole arrives powerfully in the bass; separated chords (a sure sign in Bach of the end approaching) lead us to the final entry in the alto over a pedal point, with the soprano taking over in the last few notes. The end is reached with finality and acceptance.
Abridged Program notes by Angela Hewitt © 2007, from liner notes for the CD, Bach:The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperirte Clavier), Hyperion Record
Angela Hewitt occupies a unique position among today’s leading pianists. With a wide-ranging repertoire and frequent appearances in recital and with major orchestras throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia, she is also an award-winning recording artist whose performances of Bach have established her as one of the composer’s foremost interpreters. In 2020 she received the City of Leipzig Bach Medal: a huge honour that for the first time in its 17-year history was awarded to a woman.
In September 2016, Hewitt began her ‘Bach Odyssey’, performing the complete keyboard works of Bach in a series of 12 recitals. The cycle was presented in London’s Wigmore Hall, New York’s 92nd Street Y, and in Ottawa, Tokyo and Florence. After her performances of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival, the critic of the London Times wrote, “…the freshness of Hewitt’s playing made it sound as though no one had played this music before.”
Hewitt’s award-winning cycle for Hyperion Records of all the major keyboard works of Bach has been described as “one of the record glories of our age” (The Sunday Times). Her discography also includes albums of Couperin, Rameau, Scarlatti, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Fauré, Debussy, Chabrier, Ravel, Messiaen and Granados. The final CD in her complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas (Op.106 and Op.111) will be released in 2022. A regular in the USA Billboard chart, her new album Love Songs hit the top of the specialist classical chart in the UK and stayed there for months after its release. In 2015 she was inducted into Gramophone Magazine’s ‘Hall of Fame’ thanks to her popularity with music lovers around the world.
Conducting from the keyboard, Angela has worked with many of the world’s best chamber orchestras, including those of Salzburg, Zurich, Lucerne, Basel, Stuttgart, Sweden, and the Britten Sinfonia. One recent highlight was her debut in Vienna’s Musikverein, playing and conducting Bach Concertos with the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra. In 2021/22 concerto performances include the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Helsinki Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony orchestras, Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa and Concerto Budapest (UK tour), while recitals take place in London, Rome, Leipzig, Dortmund, Tallinn, New York, Philadelphia and Tokyo, among many others. In July 2022 Angela is Chairman of the Jury of the prestigious International Bach Competition Leipzig.
Her frequent masterclasses are hugely appreciated. When all concert activity abruptly stopped in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, Angela went online to share daily offerings of short pieces—many of which form the basis of teaching material. Her fans were thrilled, and she was happy to inspire them and stay in touch.
Born into a musical family, Hewitt began her piano studies aged three, performing in public at four and a year later winning her first scholarship. She studied with Jean-Paul Sévilla at the University of Ottawa, and won the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition which launched her career. In 2018 Angela received the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2015 she received the highest honour from her native country – becoming a Companion of the Order of Canada (which is given to only 165 living Canadians at any one time). In 2006 she was awarded an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II. She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, has seven honorary doctorates, and is a Visiting Fellow of Peterhouse College in Cambridge. In 2020 Angela was awarded the Wigmore Medal in recognition of her services to music and relationship with the hall over 35 years.
Hewitt lives in London but also has homes in Ottawa and Umbria, Italy where fifteen years ago she founded the Trasimeno Music Festival – a week-long annual event which draws an audience from all over the world.