Angela Hewitt prefaced her instructive guided tour from the keyboard by confiding to us that when asked to take Bach's final work into her repertoire she responded "Oh no, not the ***** Art of the Fugue!"
She tactfully omitted the adjective but said she believed the work to be “so boring”. Cue gasps, nervous titters and a chorus of disgruntled harrumphs from the audience.
Admirably candid I thought. She’s been converted to its merits on closer acquaintance and there was nothing boring in her performance of selections: Contrapunctus XI to XIII; 4 Canons; and Contrapunctus XIV.
The last ends in musical mid-sentence, when Bach died, and Hewitt observed a long pause and then played a chorale to give us a satisfying cadence.
Hewitt’s Bach has been accused of being lovely but lightweight but I found no evidence of that here or in her scintillating handling of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV 903.
Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op 110 also ends in a fugue but romanticism has entered and he dares to interrupt the flow with doubts and despair. I’ve heard more smiling opening movements than Hewitt’s – Beethoven marks it “with charm” but here it simpered rather than melted us – and wilder scherzos, where the music really should be let off the leash, but (unsurprisingly) the finale was outstanding.
The repeated chord heralding the fugue’s return was properly imposing and Hewitt convincingly paced the final bars’ soundings so that they became an exultant journey from angst to joy.