A Pianist Reveals Bach's Inner Dancer

When Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt asserts that her journey with Bach began when she was born, if not before, she is hardly exaggerating.

A Pianist Reveals Bach's Inner Dancer

Her father was a cathedral organist and choir director in Ottawa. As a child, she remembers being thrilled to hear him perform Bach’s awesome organ works. He even made an arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for their musical family to play at two pianos (eight hands).

Yet, during Hewitt’s Bach program on Saturday at the 92nd Street Y — the first of three there this season to conclude her four-year survey of Bach’s complete keyboard works — her splendid performances suggested that another formative experience may have influenced her approach to Bach just as much, if not more: As a young woman she studied classical ballet and still remembers dancing in her bedroom to recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

“I responded to the rhythm in the music,” she said in a 2017 interview with The Guardian. She has always made of point of bringing out the dance rhythms in Bach’s music, she explained. “I don’t have to think about it; it’s just part of me,” she said.

That quality abounded in her playing on this night in a program that included the last three of Bach’s six English Suites. As in all of Bach’s keyboard suites, most of the movements are based on dance forms, including the courante, gavotte and gigue. Even the opening Prelude movements seem charged with the energy of dance, especially in Hewitt’s performances.

The Allemande of the English Suite No. 4 in F major unfolds in curvy, contrapuntal lines embellished with runs rich with triplet flourishes. While rendering these qualities gracefully, Hewitt conveyed the music’s bouncy yet stately character as a dance. Even its slow Sarabande, which has the quality of a chorale, came across like a courtly dance. You could imagine the gracious bows and flowing gestures of the dancers.

The quick-paced Gigue that ends this suite had breathless energy and crispness, but not so much that it would obscure the music’s complexity and daring. The turbulent Gigue that concludes the intense English Suite No. 6 in D minor might not seem so danceable, with its relentless spans of spiraling runs and eerily sustained trills that keep bursting forth. Hewitt conveyed the movement’s storminess, but also its choreographic vigor.

That Hewitt, in a program note, referred to her career as “based on Bach,” seems right. The centerpiece of her acclaimed recordings for Hyperion is a 15-CD collection of Bach’s major keyboard works, completed in 2014. But her discography includes albums of Beethoven, Chopin, Chabrier and Debussy.

On this night she also played an early Bach Sonata in D, a charming piece that concludes with a Theme, as the composer called it, alive with imitations of cackling hens and a chirping cuckoo, playfully dispatched by Hewitt. She then showed additional expertise at bird calls in her encore: Couperin’s “The Nightingale in Love.”


Angela Hewitt: Bach Odyssey

The four-year survey concludes with programs at the 92nd Street Y in April and May, 2020, 92y.org; 212-415-5500.

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