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Toccatas BWV 910-916

Angela Hewitt (Piano)

Review: Toccatas played by Angela Hewitt


Bach: The Toccatas

Toccatas BWV 910-916 [10:22, 12:12, 11:22, 11:42, 6:49, 9:00, 7:27]

Angela Hewitt (Piano)


Jan 2002

CD / TT: 68:55

Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, England. 2nd recording of Toccata No. 2 BWV 911 by A. Hewitt.
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Peter Bright wrote (September 16, 2002):
Bach: The toccatas played by Angela Hewitt (Hyperion Records) Recorded 15-18 January 2002 on a Steinway piano

"The toccata is one of the earliest works of J. S. Bach, and in no way a masterpiece. Like every other man, Bach had to start out as a bungler before he could become a master. His student exercises, by which he little by little made of himself the great master he afterwards became, do not deserve to be included in an edition of his works." (Johann Forkel (1801).

Forkel telling it like only he can. What an amazing loss it would be if ALL Bach's student exercises were lost! Having said that, until I heard Hewitt's recording, the toccatas represented a series of pieces I had never felt comfortable with. Familiar only with Watchorn's respected set and some (but not all) of Gould's, I found this music somewhat opaque and uninvolving. Of all Bach's work, these "stylus fantasticus" pieces, perhaps because of their flamboyant style somehow lacked depth, at least for me.

I think that even those who have problems with Angela Hewitt's approach to Bach cannot fail to be impressed with her interpretation of the toccatas, which lend themselves astonishingly well to the piano. Using subtle colours, the melodies hidden within the movements of each toccata emerge gracefully. Given that the pieces never represented a coherent or organised "set" (at least as far as we are aware), Hewitt paid no attention to catalogue numbers and placed them in an order of her own choosing.

She starts with the C minor toccata (BWV 911), which has two primary subjects following an initial flourish: a plaintive adagio which leads to a long, playful fugue [at 3:39]. She gives a wonderfully relaxed reading of this most involving of movements, the opening motive disappearing and appearing again like a gentle pulse. Unfortunately there is a slight clumsiness at 11:02 which she compounds in the next couple of phrases, I think, to make it seem deliberate(!) - I may be mistaken here and would be interested in other opinions.

This is followed by the G major (BWV 916), one of the shorter pieces, which comprises three movements. The first, a short ritornello, very Italian passage followed [at 1:56] by an Adagio (in E minor) which I feel is played rather too slowly. The fugue (in the French style, according to Hewitt, but sounding pretty well grounded in the German tradition to me) is not wholly compelling and lacks fluidity here. A relatively disappointing performance.

The next is the F sharp minor (BWV 910). According to Hewitt, the least well known. Two movements (an initial ascent and descent of the scale and a rather nondescript adagio movement) give way to a fairly aggressive fugue (Presto e staccato). Then, at 5:30, a section of pure, warm magic where a short phrase is repeated at different intervals, wonderfully drawn out on the Steinway. A fugue follows which is of more interest than the first. A great case is made for this being more widely known.

The following toccata (E minor, BWV 914) might be my personal favourite. Every movement is a joy and Hewitt brings a richness to the slower movements which is singularly lacking in all other versions of this work I have heard. At 4:19 (and the preceding flourish at 3:36) are sections that are as spine tingling as anything in Bach's keyboard world (although the latter fugue was apparently "borrowed"). Never mind, it's stunning and Hewitt makes it her own.

The toccata in D minor (BWV 913). As the performer notes, the opening movements, particularly from about 1:00 bring to mind the Cappriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother (BWV 992). Then at 2:10 comes a wonderful early, bright fugue - clearly the work of a very young Bach! Tremendous reading and a real delight. The fugue ends at 5:37 and if the toccata also closed it would be perfect. But the latter sections don't disappoint. A meditative, relaxed bridge builds to a fugue similar to the preceding one - Hewitt is slightly less sure of herself here but hold our interest throughout. Overall, another tour de force, and highly emotive music making.

The toccata in G minor (BWV 915) starts with a flourish once again. At 1:18, the first fugue enters in dotted rhythm. Perhaps not one of Bach's most inventive subjects, but, once more, Hewitt toys with the music, adding shades of colour to maintain interest. A gentle adagio leads to a very interesting four part fugue (not because of it's complexity, but, ironically because it is so mundane!). I tend to agree with Hewitt's observation that, in such movement, the piano has an advantage over the piano, because of the greater possibility for variation in timbre and volume. Incidentally, this is the only toccata where the initial flourish returns at the end.

The final fugue is the one in D major (BWV 912). The most popular, but, for me, not the most satisfying. Still, a convincing reading, which contains an expressive central adagio and an energetic gigue (though not as exciting as the more famous one that closes French Suite 5).

This disc sits easily with her French Suites and Partitas as her very best work in Bach. Her performance has opened my ears to the toccatas, pieces that, prior to hearing them, never caught my imagination.


Feedback to the Review

James Whiskeychan wrote (September 17, 2002):
[To Peter Bright] Thanks for this review Peter. I have always had a fondness for Angela Hewitt. I'll had this to my wish list!

Jim Morrison wrote (September 17, 2002):
[To Peter Bright] Thanks for the good review. Another one to put on my wish list, though at the moment, I'm probably full-up on Toccata recordings. Keep in mind Jaccottet and Parmentier on harpsichord; don't let Watchorn make you think he's got the corner on these works. Leonhardt also has recorded a few of them as well. Track down the Hantai if you can as well.

More later on a good, oft-recommended, set of the Bach keyboard concerti by Kipnis and Marriner. After only hearing a few tracks I'd say this is going to rank up there with my favorite performances of them, along with van Asperen's set. Never heard the Hantai, and only a few works off the Manze/Eggar.


Toccatas BWV 910-916: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Toccatas - A. Hewitt | Toccatas - E. Parmentier | Toccatas - P. Watchorn & R. Troeger
General Discussions - Part 1 | Toccatas - B.v. Asperen

Angela Hewitt: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
A Stunning New Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 / Bach Recording for 1999 | Review: Toccatas played by Angela Hewitt | Hewitt’s English Suites | Review: Hewitt’s Goldberg Variations | Angela Hewitt Bach’s Recital Disc on Hyperion | Hewitt Bach arrangements [Bright] | New Album by Angela Hewitt [McElhearn]

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