What to expect from Angela Hewitt's new recording of Bach's Partitas

She first recorded them in 1997, 'effortlessly eclipsing all competition,' according to Gramophone. Now, she revisits Bach's 'Op. 1' with a 'greater understanding of his musical language and what exactly it expresses.'

The celebrated pianist revisits Bach's 'Op. 1' with a 'greater understanding of his musical language'

'When I started using Fazioli in 1999 on a regular basis (and having one at home to practise on), it began to enlarge my imagination for sound and colour.' — Angela Hewitt (Richard Termine)

"If you really want to have what I think is a special experience, find yourself two hours and 45 minutes during which you can listen to all six Partitas at once — just put them on, lie on the sofa or the floor, and listen through without interruptions," urges Angela Hewitt. "Bach says so much in these pieces, and the cumulative effect is really something that will leave you in awe."

Fans of Hewitt wishing to follow her suggestion will soon have two sets of Partitas to choose from, since Hyperion Records will release her new recording of the pieces on Nov. 29, a complement to the one she released 22 years ago.

"The 1997 recording was one of the first ones in my Bach cycle for Hyperion: I had done the Two- and Three-part Inventions in 1994; the French Suites in 1995, and then the Partitas in 1996," she reminded CBC Music recently. "They were done on a Steinway — one that was used often by Wilhelm Kempff in his recordings."

Not long thereafter, Hewitt began favouring Fazioli pianos for her concerts and recordings, a transition that she says enlarged her imagination for sound and colour. It's one of the reasons she wanted to re-record Bach's Six Partitas, this time using a Fazioli.

"The piano is totally different, giving me many more colours to work with," she explains. "I also hardly use the soft pedal now, which perhaps before I did too much! I don't have to with the Fazioli: I can easily alter the soft sound with the fingers alone."

Her 1997 recording was made in Hannover's Beethovensaal, whereas her new one was produced at the Kulturzentrum at the Grand Hotel in Dobbiaco, Italy. "The concert hall in Dobbiaco is perhaps more suited to the grandeur of the Partitas," she notes. "There is a bigger feeling of space and the sound is a bit richer. Hannover we have used in recent years for both my Scarlatti recordings, and it's great for that. In both halls we don't place the piano on the stage, but rather find the best position for it in the hall itself, removing the seats."

A key person behind the scenes of Hewitt's recording sessions is Ludger Böckenhoff.

Angela Hewitt embraces her longtime colleague, Ludger Böckenhoff, at the Trasimeno Music Festival. (Studio di foto)

"Ludger and I have worked together now for 25 years! He was involved from the start with the Bach recordings for Hyperion, first as Tonmeister (recording engineer)," she reflects. "[Then] I understood quickly that he also had great ideas about interpretation and what could be better, [so] when my original Hyperion producer retired, Ludger took over both roles. I credit him with inspiring me to always do better when we're in recordings, and he was never easy on me, which is a good thing! We have in fact inspired each other, and have a very unique way of working together. Now his son, who was just a small boy when I first met him, is following in his footsteps, which is great!"

Besides using a different make of piano and recording the album in a more generous acoustic, there's Hewitt's revised approach to Bach's Partitas to consider. We pointed out that her new recording runs approximately seven minutes longer than her earlier one.

"Oh, does it? I never really noticed this!" she reacted. "Well, you know, when you get older the brain just goes a bit slower — this is normal. And I think tempos that seemed fine when you were young now seem a bit fast. But I didn't really think of that when playing them.... I do think I have an even greater wish to bring out the dance in these movements, and that perhaps is reflected in the tempi."

It has a dimension way beyond just a collection of dances for the keyboard. It's a very personal, very profound statement coming from JSB.- Angela Hewitt

Of course, her interpretation of the Partitas goes beyond the choice of tempo.

"I think that now, after so many years of studying Bach and of course having done the complete works (something which I hadn't done when I first recorded the Partitas), I have a much greater understanding of his musical language and what exactly it expresses. Certainly a piece like the Sixth Partita — arguably the greatest of the set, along with the Fourth — means a lot more to me now than it did before. I remember Ludger (this time round), after I had just played a complete first take of the 32-minute work, asked me, 'Do people understand what they're hearing when you play this piece?' It has a dimension way beyond just a collection of dances for the keyboard. It's a very personal, very profound statement coming from JSB."

'Bach says so much in these pieces, and the cumulative effect is really something that will leave you in awe.' — Angela Hewitt on Bach's 6 Partitas (Hyperion Records)

The Partitas are not the only pieces Hewitt has re-recorded since completing her Bach project on Hyperion Records in 2014 — she released a new recording of the Goldberg Variations in 2015 — and since 2016 she's been busy with her global Bach Odyssey, playing all of Bach's solo keyboard music over four years in London, England, New York City, Ottawa, Tokyo and at Hewitt's own Trasimeno Music Festival in Italy.

How has this lifelong immersion in Bach's music shaped her?

"My mind works horizontally when I'm learning any music now — not just Baroque music," she explains. "I can't see a Beethoven sonata or a piece of Schumann in anything else but counterpoint, but that's actually a terrific thing, and one which is largely ignored by most pianists. It has made me disciplined (well, I always was, but even more so!), it has made me orderly, it has made me realize the power of music to give great joy and to relieve great sorrow. It has made me a better keyboard player — improving my tone and imagination for sound, strengthening my fingers, making them always more independent. Playing so much of it at once as I've been doing on this Bach Odyssey is difficult, I must say, because it's hard on the shoulders and arms. You need such control and are playing within a limited range on the keyboard. Plus the concentration is enormous and that all goes into the neck and shoulders. I'm glad to be getting a few months off when it's over next summer!"

Hyperion Records will release Bach: The Six Partitas on Nov. 29. Hewitt will next appear in Canada as a guest of l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal for two concerts: on Jan. 16, 2020, she and Paul Lewis will play Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365; on Jan. 17, 2020, she and tenor Ian Bostridge will perform excerpts from Schubert's Die Winterreise on a program that also includes Schubert's Symphony No. 9.