Four years ago, Hyperion released all of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt’s recordings of Bach’s solo keyboard works as a 15-disc boxed set. It was a huge project, but it didn’t include Bach’s monumental late work, The Art of the Fugue. Hewitt has now tackled this set of 18 fugues and canons, which she describes in her detailed booklet notes as “completely overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally.”
Hewitt’s stylistic trademarks are here – dancing rhythms, nuanced touch and sparkling clarity. She colours each voice so distinctively, you can hear right into the complex textures. But her greatest achievement is to reveal the spiritual depth that suffuses this work. It becomes not just an exploration of all the things counterpoint can do, but an exploration of just about everything that music can possibly do – and then some.
Bach never specified the instrumentation for this work. Hewitt makes as convincing a case for performing it on a modern piano as any I have heard, especially with an instrument as responsive as her Fazioli.
Bach’s score ends, enigmatically, part way through the final fugue. Most performances either stop there, or add on a completion in Bach’s style. Following the original edition, Hewitt stops mid-fugue, pauses, then plays Bach’s “deathbed” chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When in the hour of utmost need), which C.P.E. Bach copied into the score after his father’s death. It makes for an intimate and moving finale.