This is Angela Hewitt’s second recording (the first was in 1999, and both on Hyperion) of a work that she has lived with for years, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen”.
Hewitt’s Bach-playing has always been a fine balancing between Baroque style, a strong affinity with dance and a restrained romantic sensibility, and on this 2015 recording there are quite a few instances where she deploys weight and emotionalism, as though she is emphasising the music’s universality.
Her piano is a beautiful Fazioli instrument, which responds well to her brand of attack, colour and characterisation. Indeed, in the very fast Variations (such as I, V, XX and XVIII), Hewitt’s clean, even and nimble technique could have transferred perfectly to a harpsichord. She plays all the repeats (except in the Aria da capo), and after a number of listens her changes of focus on part-voicing – the canons are played with the utmost lucidity – and tweaking of decoration lose none of their charm and spontaneity.
The decorations in general breathe with the pulse of the music, imposing their own flexible, highly attractive rubato on the music and showing off Hewitt’s graceful phrasing to its best advantage. Any worries I had about her rather mannered treatment of Variations XVII and XIX were blown away as much by the pyrotechnics of XX as by the astonishing amount of detail she releases. She is completely at home with the big structural gestures Bach delivers in the half-way ‘Overture’ Variation XVI and in the blockbuster Variation XXIX, complete with massive octave doublings. She is as generously expressive in the three G-minor Variations (XV, XXI and XXV), and while I admired the sombre grandeur of XXI, the anguished fortissimo in XXV struck a false note. Similarly, her spectral treatment of the Aria da capo limits its elusive eloquence.
Sixty years have passed since the famous Glenn Gould recording became a crucial spiritual soundtrack for many Bach lovers, and there have been many versions since then. Despite some minor misgivings, Angela Hewitt’s takes the spirit of variation to heart in her subtly epic performance.