Virtuoso pianist Angela Hewitt: 'Memorising Bach is about the hardest thing you can do'

As her Australian tour kicks off, one of the world’s great Bach interpreters talks the death of CDs, the decline in arts journalism and dancing to classical music

Angela Hewitt always had a thing for problem solving. “When I was a kid, my mother used to put me into my playpen with a million knots because otherwise I would escape,” the Canadian virtuoso classical pianist says, smiling at the memory. “I spent my whole time undoing all these knots, and finally I would escape and run down the street. I like unravelling knots.”

It’s hardly surprising then that Hewitt is one of the great Bach interpreters of our day. His contrapuntal composition weaves several lines of music around each other in real time. Despite being written three centuries ago, it remains great training for life. It helps in multitasking, for example.

“You’re able to do four or five things at once because that’s what you’re doing when you’re playing Bach,” Hewitt says. “It gives you an incredible memory, because memorising Bach is about the hardest thing you can do. It gives you discipline in your everyday life, I think, and clarity. And also a great sense of comfort and joy and appreciation of the beautiful.”

Until quite recently, the arrival in Australia of a musician of Hewitt’s calibre would have been mainstream news, her every move followed, even sensationalised, in the press. But classical music is in eclipse in our history-averse moment. Despite the passion so many people still have for the western musical canon, few can be bothered curating a serious personal CD collection any more.

“My record label Hyperion doesn’t support Spotify. They don’t put any content there, because it’s a total rip-off,” Hewitt says, referring to returns for the artist. She still puts time and care into writing interesting program notes for her CDs, but she’s under no illusion those old-school efforts are enough. “Young people won’t go and buy a CD. They probably don’t even have a CD player,” she says wryly.

When we meet for peppermint tea in her Sydney hotel’s rackety foyer, two days before the start of her Australian tour, Hewitt has already heard that those once august news institutions, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, are not only cutting journalism jobs but many of their dedicated arts staff.

She shakes her head. “Everyone gets fewer reviews now. It’s rare they cover recitals in London,” she says of classical music’s international headquarters, where she now lives. “Or else it’s websites who do it, for better or for worse: bloggers who don’t necessarily have any education in how to write a review.”

And yet Hewitt is sanguine about her own situation. “A lot of it is up to the artist now,” she continues. “We do have to engage with the public: giving pre-concert talks, writing your CD notes, doing Facebook or Twitter.”

She always does CD signings after her concerts. At her last stop, Singapore, she arranged to have stocks sent from England because the record company has no distributor in the island state any more.

Hewitt came to prominence when she won the International Bach Piano Competition in Toronto in 1985. Bach was – and still is – her main man. Growing up the child of a cathedral organist and a music teacher, she was steeped in his music. Her parents gave her Bach to learn from the time she started playing piano as a toddler. She sang Bach in church on Sundays.

Angela Hewitt
Angela Hewitt: ‘I’d put on the Brandenburg Concertos in my bedroom and dance around to them.’ Photograph: Keith Saunders

Bach suits her most innate characteristics. As well as a fascination with complexity, she loves physical movement. A student of ballet, as well as music, she even danced to Bach as a teenager. “I’d put on the Brandenburg Concertos in my bedroom and dance around to them. I responded to the rhythm in the music. And I’ve always made a point of bringing that out in the way I play it. I don’t have to think about it, it’s just part of me.”

On this tour, which starts and ends in Sydney, Bach’s partitas make up the mainstay of both programs on offer. She is halfway through a four-year “Bach odyssey”, traversing his massive keyboard repertoire, and 2017 is the year for those works. The partitas were written, she says paraphrasing Bach, “to the glory of God and to recharge our spirits”.

She is also partway through recording the Beethoven sonatas, and will play the Moonlight, the No 14 in C sharp Major, and the lesser-known No 1 in F Minor in one of her two touring programs. When I say I can’t remember the latter and will look up my Verlag edition when I get home, she pre-empts me, unselfconsciously pom-pom-pomming the energetic opening bars in the noisy bar.

As if tackling the total piano oeuvre of those two towering geniuses isn’t challenging enough, Hewitt has other fish to fry. She runs an annual music festival in Trasimeno, Italy every July. She is ambassador for an Ottawa program called OrKidstra, which gives underprivileged kids a place to go after school and puts an instrument in their hands, opening up possibilities of a professional life. And then there’s the constant touring.

We keep returning to the nagging problem of the breakdown of economic models for our respective professions in an increasingly superficial age: the slow death of serious news media, the eclipse of CDs by streaming, the contraction of arts journalism, the self-imposed limits on lesser-known repertoire by young musicians chasing fast-track competition wins.

The music itself, however, is our happy fallback. She will also be playing some Ravel and Chabrier in one program, and some Scarlatti sonatas.

“Scarlatti was born in the same year as Bach, but inhabited a totally different world, first Italy then Spain. He was a very different personality from Bach: very theatrical, very lyrical, brilliant. And then Ravel adored Scarlatti. He always had a volume of his sonatas on his piano.”

Hewitt points out that attending concerts – savouring the atmosphere, the recitalist’s concentration, the interpretation, the fellowship of the audience – is “totally different to listening to something on your phone”.

And contrary to the fears of some who have never set foot in a recital hall, it isn’t necessary to be part of the cognoscenti to appreciate the music live, she says. “I’ve had too many people come up to me afterwards and say, ‘My wife dragged me along, I wanted to stay home and watch the hockey match, but thank God I came’.”

Angela Hewitt is touring Australia until 27 May


Miriam Cosic

The GuardianTramp

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