The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Angela Hewitt Interview Transcript

This interview was conducted on December 1, 2005 over the phone. Ms. Hewitt was at her home in Italy, and I was at the WKCR studios. The interview was taped and aired on December 31 during Bach Fest (of course) on WKCR.

JT: [Intro] Why Bach? What led you to focus so much on Bach from very early in your career?

AH: Well it was there at home. My father, as you just said, was organist at the cathedral, so of course he played all those wonderful organ works by Bach and did play them marvelously I must say. My mother, who was my first piano teacher, had been his student, so I went to church every Sunday and heard him play, and I just remember those early years very well and what an impression Bach’s music made on me. And when I did start playing the piano at age three, I think by four I was already playing the easiest pieces of Bach, and being taught it very well I must say, too, with the right phrasing and how to articulate and all those little details that make such a difference. So I just loved right away from the beginning what was in his music and the rhythm of it all, and the themes, so much. So I certainly grew up in the right household to love Bach.

JT: That’s a very authentic baroque story, growing up with father who was the town organist.

AH: [laughing] Right.

JT: Bach himself studied first with a relative, although I think it was his uncle.

AH: That’s right. He certainly came from a musical family.

JT: And created a musical family.

AH: That’s right. So all those things, and also all the other things I did as a child, you need two or three of them: violin, recorder, classical ballet. They all sort of helped with my interpretation of baroque music. Violin, of course – the keyboard concertos that I just recorded, two of them I first played on the violin, and then later learned them on the piano. Recorder gave me great insights into baroque ornamentation. I had a wonderful teacher for that. And singing also, I sang in my father’s choir, so that was great for getting to know about part playing, singing the inner voices. And then ballet of course gave me the sense of the dance, which is so necessary in Bach, because his music is really all dance, such as how to express rhythm, which I think I really got from my ballet training.

JT: So what made you choose to play the piano, as opposed to, say, the harpsichord?

AH: Well. I never considered anything else, really. It seemed natural to me to play Bach on the piano. Of course, I knew that it was written for the harpsichord. And I remember I had one for a year in my bedroom because somebody went away on sabbatical and left us one, and I fooled around with it. But I was never really taken by the sound of the harpsichord, I much prefer the sound of the piano. And I could see that if you played it properly from the beginning, it sounded great. There’s nothing better for singing those wonderful melodies, melodic lines that Bach writes, for distinguishing the different voices. I never had any complexes about playing it on the piano at all. So it wasn’t a conscious decision, it just seemed natural. Of course, I knew there were people who thought it was a no-no to do that [laughing], but that never really influenced me, because I always felt good about what I was doing.

JT: Well even if there’s not a moral issue there, there are some things that the harpsichord can do that the piano can’t. For instance, the higher notes have a different quality than the lower which helps vary voices; you can vary the stops between the hands; it has a sharper plucking sound. Were you ever attracted to that?

AH: Well, I wouldn’t say that there’s a lot a harpsichord can do that a piano can’t. I mean, it can be noisier, sure. Having done a lot of Couperin… this is important, actually. Couperin’s music is actually more idiomatic for the harpsichord than Bach. Take the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance. There’s no music that’s more abstract than that. It can be played by anything; a three-voice fugue could be played by three string instruments, by three wind instruments, could be sung by three voices. It’s such pure music, it’s not really idiomatic for the keyboard at all. So that’s why I don’t see a problem. The harpsichord, yes, you can sometimes double the octaves, but you can also sometimes do that on a piano, as I do for instance in the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue [in C Minor the last time the subject comes in in the bass], I double it in octaves. I mean you can do that, which you could do on the organ pedals as well. I just find that the advantages of playing it on the piano outweigh the disadvantages.

JT: That’s a great point. Maybe that’s why his early works, like the Toccatas, are the ones that sound best on the harpsichord, while his later and more abstract works tend to sound better on the piano.

AH: Perhaps, sure. They are more idiomatic, all the arpeggios and stuff. So yes, they do sound quite different on the harpsichord, sure.

JT: Many have observed that your great genius in your Bach work is that you use all the dynamics and everything available in the piano and yet your Bach playing never sounds anything but Bachian.

AH: Right.

JT: Contrast that with, for instance, when I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Well-Tempered at Carnegie Hall, and it was a thrilling performance, but it was very much a Romantic performance,

AH: Exactly

JT: It didn’t really sound like Bach. So how is it that you do that?

AH: Just by using musical intelligence to imagine how it was… I mean, forget the harpsichord, and you look at Bach, so many of the keyboard works are very orchestral or vocal. So that’s really what’s more in my mind than the harpsichord. First of all, I play with very little sustaining pedal. One of the things I really concentrate on, something a lot of pianists do somewhat, but in my opinion not enough, is that all of the legato is done with the fingers. My fingering is very complicated, but it allows me to play cleanly and smoothly without using the pedal. I never rely on my foot to play something legato, if I can help it. I will turn my fingers and my hands inside out to do this [laughing]. So that takes an awful lot of work at the beginning, but that I have done. And also in the articulation, very important. And this perhaps comes a lot from my violin playing. Because I don’t think pianists think enough about what the bowings would be on a stringed instrument. I mean, when we were doing the concertos – and you can hear this, I think – all my parts are marked, I marked them so that the bowings imitate what I’m doing on the keyboard and vice versa. That’s a very important study and a very important part of Bach interpretation.

JT: And you mentioned before ornamentation. Using that also, rather than dynamics and pedals, lots of trills…

AH: Yeah, to get it as close as possible to what it would have been on a harpsichord. You don’t have to do trills on the piano for a long time to get the note to sustain like you had to on the harpsichord. So you don’t have to do that on much. Several harpsichordists who have heard me play say that if I sat down and played the same way on a harpsichord, I would really sound like a harpsichordist a lot of the time [laughing]. I thin it just has to do with the clarity of the articulation mainly.

JT: Yeah, focusing on the space between the notes rather than the amplification of the notes themselves.

AH: Right, sure. Even in something, like the E-Flat Minor prelude from Book I, which is that wonderful, slow sarabande, where most pianists would pedal on every beat, I just don’t use it all. All the legato, even the repeated chords in the left hands, I do just with the fingers, hardly lifting the notes from the keys to repeat them.

JT: So while we’re on the topic of instruments, you recently did a performance in Seattle. I read that you had a piano taken all the way from Salt Lake City to Seattle for the performance.

AH: [laughing] That’s right, a Fazioli, yes.

JT: So what is it about that piano?

AH: Well, the Fazioli piano in general I think is a fabulous instrument. They’re made here in Italy just outside of Venice. Mr. Fazioli only makes a hundred a year, so there aren’t a lot of them around, so that’s why we had to bring one from Salt Lake City to Seattle, because that was the closest dealer who had one and could service one for me. I own two of them. I have one here in my house in Italy, which I record on now, I take it out to do my recordings, it’s a fabulous piano. They have great clarity, they have a great range of sound. They have a different sound. Some people who are so used to hearing the traditional Steinway sound might not like it, or it might take them a while to get used to it. But it’s such a colored sound, that I feel there’s so much more of a variety that I can get. And just the responsiveness of the action is quite amazing, every little ounce that I do comes out, and also I can do it with great ease. It’s not a clumsy piano at all. They don’t say it’s the Ferrari of the piano world for nothing. I mean, I’ve never driven a Ferrari, I wouldn’t know [laughing].

JT: That’s probably pretty key in something as tricky as the Goldberg Variations.

AH: Sure, sure. So I do play them often. I have an Italian tour in December of seven concerts, I’m playing it in two different places. I just also like a bit of variety. If you play the same type of piano all the time, it can get a little boring, so it’s nice to have a little spice in life. But I do find that the Fazioli is wonderful, especially for Bach.

JT: Do you think the audiences notice the difference in general?

AH: They do. Well certainly a lot of them told me they do, they like it very much.

JT: Do you have particular Bach works that have been your favorite to perform in concert or to record?

AH: I know that my favorite Bach piece to perform in public is the Goldberg Variations. I just played it at the famous Lucerne Festival this week. I played it for my debut in Berlin also. It’s just a wonderful experience I think for everybody involved; for me, although I’ve played it for over 30 years now, I never get tired of it and always am finding new things. For the audience, for those who know it, they’re interested to hear another interpretation, or those who don’t know it are just completely bowled over by it. And it does have this, I think, wonderful spiritual power that can really, in a good performance, lift us very high up. And there are not many pieces that have that to such a degree. So I love playing the Goldbergs. But I must say, playing as I did in Miller Theater at Columbia the other night, complete Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier— which is a marathon and you have to be pretty masochistic to do it—is also a wonderful experience. In a way, it’s more demanding on the audience, not just because of length, but in the concentration it takes. But also very very satisfying, because there’s no greater music really.

JT: One thing I’ve found in listening to the Well-Tempered Clavier in performance is that it’s more demanding to the ear. It’s not just very long, but it’s not as integrated a work as the Goldberg Variations. Do you think that’s true?

AH: Well, you have 24 preludes and fugues, 48 pieces there, all of which are very different, so it’s not integrated at all, except that it’s a prelude and fugue in every key. Although I do present them in groups of four, I think each group of four makes a very satisfying whole. But no, it’s not like the Goldberg, where you have the same bass-, the same harmonies that repeat in each variation over and over again, and that gives it a tremendous unity. The only unity in playing the 24 preludes and fugues is that you’ve played them all, so you’ve gone through all the keys. But still, it’s wondrous what he does, and the variety that there is. But yes, it is quite demanding, certainly more demanding on me, playing it from memory. The Goldberg seems like a walk in the park afterwards, to tell you the truth, after playing the Well-Tempered Clavier [laughing].

JT: Do you ever play Book II in concert?

AH: Oh yes, I’ve done Book II in concert. Actually, in the 2007-2008 season, we’re planning a world tour where I will present the 48 preludes and fugues, both books, in two concerts, all over the world. And I will hopefully be doing it in New York, I think at Zankel. And in many different places I haven’t been, South Africa, South America, in London of course. Anyway, really a world tour, presenting Book I on a Friday, Book II on a Sunday matinee perhaps, because it’s much longer, or perhaps more spaced apart with a master class in each city. Something like that, but really, we’re going to make a thing of it. It’s going to be very demanding on myself, but- I did it in 2000, in the Bach anniversary year, and it was the biggest challenge of my life. But I feel it’s worth it, it’s something I want to do.

JT: Book 2 was written much later, and is more complicated

AH: It is.

JT: And a lot of people would say a little less warm. So do you have a different approach to it in general than you do for Book I?

AH: No, I don’t have a different approach, but the music is a bit different. Especially the last twelve can be very complicated, but I’ve worked quite hard on those. And also worked hard to get the biggest contrasts, to get the most interest out of each of them. Some people play those last twelve so slowly, all of them, that you just die. So I’ve really tried to put as much life as possible in them, and when you do actually, they’re fabulous fabulous pieces. But it took me a long time to find that, so I think some people just don’t get that far [laughing]. And also they’re terribly difficult to play technically. Book I perhaps is easier to play in concert, because it’s “only” two hours of music, whereas Book II is two and a half hours of music. So it’s a big thing. So as I told my Italian agent, I don’t start a concert of Book II at nine o’clock at night, they have to start a little earlier [big laugh].

JT: Going back to the Goldberg Variations, in performing this and even more so in recording it, you have a daunting task of distinguishing yourself from just about every other major keyboard artist since Glenn Gould, because just about everybody records this piece. So how did you confront this challenge?

AH: Again, I didn’t actually listen to a lot of performances. I mean, everybody records this piece… well, not everybody plays Bach, but certainly yes, all the major Bach players have. But I didn’t obsessively listen to all the recordings out there. No, I had my own way of playing it, and that was what I was most interested in, just going to the score and finding my own way. When I did record it, I had already played the piece for twenty-five years, and it had changed immensely since when I learned it at age sixteen until then. What happened was, we went into the studio, and we had five days to record it. This is true. On the first day, I played it through, and I discussed it with my producer, what we wanted to change. On the second day we did the first ten [variations], on the third day we did the middle ten, and on the fourth day we did the last ten. So by dinnertime on the fourth day, we had it all covered. I went for a bit of a massage on my shoulders, and we had a nice Japanese meal. And then we went back to the hall—Henry Wood Hall in London where we record. And my producer—who always knows when I’m playing my best or can do better—said, play the opening aria again, because I think we can have it better. So I did, and then he said, you know, now you’re playing really well, why don’t you keep going. And it was a quarter past eleven at night, I said, you’re crazy! And he said, they’re not going to kick us out of here. And it’s true, they don’t. So between a quarter past eleven and a quarter to one in the morning, I get the best performance of my life of the Goldberg Variations until then. And I would say 80% of that one performance is what you hear on the record. And it was also very different from what I had done previously in many cases. We had worked so hard taping and listening, and then changing things, improving things; we had worked so hard over those four days, that then I felt free to just play it. Plus my tuner had changed something in the piano mechanism to make the trills a little easier, which always helped. So it really just flowed out. And then we had to do a little bit of patching on the fifth day for a few stumbles here and there, but we couldn’t actually use anything we had done on the first four days, because it had been so different. So that’s a nice story, and absolutely true, about what is on my Goldbergs CD. A late-night performance.

JT: Reminiscent of the original performance, played to help the count fall asleep…

AH: In a way! That’s right, I had an audience of three, my producer, my piano tuner and his wife. So I was playing for people, too, which is when I often play my best.

JT: Yeah, and often studio recordings can have an overly contrived feel, like there was too much effort, but it sounds like you really simulated a live performance.

AH: Yeah, that’s what it is, for sure.

JT: And you haven’t just recorded the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered, you’ve recorded all of Bach’s works for solo keyboard, just an incredible accomplishment. So what did you learn from the journey? How did your view of Bach’s output evolve over the course of this entire incredible endeavor?

AH: I learned a huge, huge, huge amount, an incredible amount. I purposely started with the easier pieces, the two- and three-part inventions, and the French Suites, and the middle preludes. In each recording, I gained in knowledge, gained in experience. And of course playing it all in concert, too, as I did, while I went on. I didn’t just record them, I played them all in concert, and from memory. So throughout the years—and I think you can hear that, if you listen to the later recordings and the earlier ones—there is quite a difference, more dynamic contrasts, more distinct voicing between the parts, the ornamentation also is better. At the time I did every record, at that time I felt it was the best I could give. But I did learn a huge amount. Also, how Bach himself developed! That was the most fascinating thing, too. And now having done Couperin, to see what he got from French harpsichord composers. When you play something like the 8th [] from Couperin, the one in B Minor, and then you learn Bach’s French Overture, there are so many similarities, they must have known each other’s piece. So it’s very fascinating there. I really have come out of it so enriched, not just emotionally and intellectually, but technically as well. It has hugely developed my technique. That’s one of the reasons Bach wrote it, to get those fourth fingers as strong as the thumb! And the second and third finger! And I know that has happened, because in some pieces that I played when I was younger and then got to at the end of the cycle, I didn’t have to use fingerings that avoided using the fourth and fifth fingers as much. Those fingers are now very strong and very even. Plus, I hate to think what it’s done— well, not hate to think, I always say to myself it would have been interesting to measure my brain at the beginning of the cycle and then at the end. After having memorized all these thousands and thousands of notes, to see how my brain has changed would be fun to know.

JT: Has your approach or interpretation changed since you’ve recorded them? Musicians sometimes express displeasure with their recordings later.

AH: I still like what’s out there, but I know there are things I could do better. And even in the Well-Tempered Clavier—I recorded it in ‘97 or ‘98 I think, so that’s already quite a while away—and I would like to some day do it again, also in the new surround sound technology. We have all of the CD’s, I think from the Goldberg on, we have in surround sound, but not the ones before. But I would like to do the Well-Tempered again. I feel that it’s such a huge work, and my style has grown since I recorded it. So I will some day. What I am going to do, in 2007, or at least have available by 2007, is a DVD on my approach to Bach on the piano, explaining to people all the things one has to think about it, how to learn a fugue, because there are people wanting to know all those things. So I do want to put that down on DVD.

JT: So let’s talk a little more about influences. Obviously there’s your father. But what other performers have influenced you? Glenn Gould is also Canadian, is there a connection there?

AH: We used to see him on television. I remember the first time I saw him, I ran into the room and I saw this person playing with his fingers up by his nose, and I said, “Who’s that kook?” to my parents. I must have been four or five years old. We listened to him, but we never really imitated him, because he was so unique, and his style really only suited his personality, and certainly not mine. So I can really say that he was not a great influence on me. I think the fact that we’re both Canadian and play Bach is more a coincidence than anything else. Although one of my teachers in Toronto, Myrtle Guerrero, was of course the widow of Gould’s only teacher, Alberto Guerrero. But that was as close as the connection came. My teacher whom you mentioned before, Jean-Paul Sevilla, the French pianist who came to teach in Canada, he was the one I first heard perform the Goldberg Variations live in recital. And that really impressed me. So he adored Bach and always made sure I had some in my repertoire. So that was an influence for sure. And then I suppose the next big influence was when I went to live in London in 1985, and all the early music people were very—well, they all still are active, but especially active then. You know, Norrington and Pinnock and Gardiner. And I used to go to a lot of their concerts, I worked with some of them, and I did get a lot from them. Nothing terribly new; they talked a lot about articulation and phrasing, but that as I said any good musician should know anyway, and I was taught when I was young. But it was more their sense of joy, the way they brought out the dance in Bach, the enthusiasm they had for it. I thought it certainly didn’t have to be boring! So that just sort of underlined what I had already felt, and I dared to also be a bit more extrovert in that, in expressing that joy. So that was also a big influence on me. And then what I learned the most from really were the recording session days, listening to myself in the studio in the most ideal conditions, in a wonderful hall with a wonderful piano, with wonderful recording equipment. And with my record producer, Ludger Bockenhoff, who has tremendous ears, and really helped me extraordinarily in getting the best interpretations that we could. So those have been, I must say, the most major influences on my Bach playing.

JT: I was going to ask you about the period performance explosion, what influence it has had on you and how you feel about it. It sounds like that has had a significant influence on you.

AH: Well it did, as I said, especially in those years, the middle eighties I would say. And I really took from them what I felt applied to me the most. Also in Beethoven, I went to all the concerts of Norrington’s first Beethoven series before he recorded all those records in ’87, ’88. So I took all that and applied it to what I was doing, and yes, it did change the way I play, for sure. I think there is room for both though; there is room for that, and for the traditional interpretations. But I don’t think one can play Mozart and Beethoven now without a regard for what they’ve done, or if you do I don’t think it’s right.

JT: One thing I think you do have in common with that, with those conductors and that movement, is that you bring out that dance and that freshness in Bach.

AH: Exactly.

JT: Like what you talked about, in performances of the second half of Book II, where the performances had gotten so slow and so over-romanticized, that it got sluggish and boring, and your recordings are always the opposite of that.

AH: That’s right, that’s right. That’s important… the energy.

JT: Especially, say, the keyboard toccatas of Bach, which are so under-recorded and so under-appreciated, and part of the problem is that they are really dance-like, fun pieces but had gotten so lugubrious. And your record did a lot to alleviate that.

AH: Oh, good. Good, good [laughing].

JT: You mentioned Beethoven. At the risk of straying from our BachFest theme, you have your first Beethoven CD coming out soon, is that right?

AH: I do. I’ve recorded it, we’re just doing the editing now, and it will be out I think next fall, in September. But yes, I’m quite thrilled with that. Three sonatas, the Appassionata, the Op. 10, no. 3 in D Major, and the Op. 7 in E-Flat. And I’ll be doing another one of these about this time next year. Again, I feel that I have a little bit different approach from most pianists in playing that repertoire, than a lot of pianists, so I want to apply the same type of things that I put in my Bach playing to Beethoven, and we’ll see what comes out.

JT: Is your unique approach to Beethoven related to, or a result of, your experience with Bach directly?

AH: Of course, of course. I mean, Beethoven was influenced by Bach, they say he played all the 48 preludes and fugues as a kid. So yes, I do think so. So many people play, not just Beethoven but the piano, always playing the hands at the same dynamic. If they play mezzoforte with the right hand, they’re playing mezzoforte with the left hand. Whereas no, there are so many different voices, so many different parts, so many different things going on.

JT: Rubinstein did that really well.

AH: Sure, sure. So that I’d like to bring out. And also just the energy, the energy. The craziness of it, too. I remember when I lived in France, from 1978 to 1985, there was a tradition of playing Beethoven that, to me, it sounded as though the more boring it was, the more “Olympian” they described it as. But I couldn’t understand. I thought, is Beethoven this boring? And then I discovered it didn’t have to be that way. So I think the amount of energy you put in it is very important.

JT: Yeah, I think we really have something to look forward to then.

AH: [laughing] Good, good.

JT: One thing you like to do is write your own liner notes. Your notes to your Well-Tempered Clavier recording are especially impressive, extensive and detailed. Do you do a lot of writing on music? Is that something you feel really adds to the performance itself?

AH: Well I do like to do it. Outside of my liner notes, I don’t have much time at the moment to write anything else. I do book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which I enjoy doing, too. I’ll soon have to write the notes for my Beethoven record, so that will be a challenge. But I do enjoy it. I mean, I learn a lot from it too, and I want to give my own take on the pieces to my public. I think they appreciate that, not to have just the same old historical sort of bla bla bla. So I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy the actual process of writing. My mother was an English teacher, so I was taught how to write decently. But it does take an awful lot of time, and it’s hard to practice and write on the same day. So I usually have to put some days aside where I just write.

JT: So when’s your next trip to New York?

AH: My next time is in February, on the 24th and 26th I play in the Chamber Music at Lincoln Center series, a French program, the Debussy Cello Sonata, with Daniel Muller-Schott, the Ravel Trio, and the Franck Quintet, with members of the Society, so that will be great.

JT: It seems like your focus so far in your career has so far been Bach and French music.

AH: Well, I play everything else as well, I play all the Mozart concertos, all the Beethoven, but yeah, I suppose I am known for those two things for sure. And I have a Chabrier disc coming out next month, in January, the Chabrier for solo piano, which are wonderful. I love French music, I lived in Paris for seven years, and as you said, my teacher was French. So I was very much steeped in the French idiom, and I love it. So that’s a nice program.

JT: Great, we look forward to that. Thank you so much, Angela, for taking the time to talk to us.

AH: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s been my pleasure.


Anonymous Will Farnaby said...

As talented and dedicated as she is, one cannot help but remark that Angela Hewitt really should come to terms with her inferiority complex vis-a-vis Glenn Gould.

Instead of denigrating Gould - as she does in various of her interviews - she would be much wiser to strive to decrease the vast gulf that exists between her and the transcendent pianism and musicality of Glenn Gould.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with this comment more. While Angela Hewitt is undoubtedly a genius, Glenn Gould was a genius AND prodigy on a whole other level than Hewitt. Secondly, I find Hewitt's Bach too Romantic. I hear it and think "this isn't Brahms, it's the incomparable Bach!" She has a unique style all her own, but I would agree she feels greatly threatened by the insurmountable ingenuity of Gould. She needs to get over it because she will never come close.

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more. After listening to the complete Bach records of Glenn Gould, and then Angela Hewitt, I find nothing in Gould's recordings that are on a whole other level from Hewitt. Hewitt is just as much a genius as Gould, and by the way she never denigrated Gould in this interview, and is more than capable of matching and perhaps even surpassing his ability someday.

8:21 AM  

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