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Angela Hewitt/Chamber Orchestra of Basel, St George’s, May 2

May 22, 2010

If this is what human beings can do, it may be worth trying to keep the whole civilisation thing going. J. S. Bach can sound like a mathematical exercise in the wrong hands, but Hewitt makes it flow, and somehow renders every note deeply moving.  Even for one normally drawn to improvisation, there is written music which was set down to tell us, simply, that musical perfection was achievable once, and can be again.

It can still evoke mixed feelings. Sometimes there is that sensation Philip Larkin occasionally emphasises, that a particular landscape, or the fall of sunlight into a room are so piercingly right that nothing else in an averagely grubby human life (Larkin’s, one gathers, was more than averagely grubby) can ever measure up. I get that a bit. Hearing Bach played like this always tempts me to take a vow to eschew any other listening, but I never do – shallower pleasures beckon from the CD shelves. If I was ever going to get religion, vanishingly unlikely for one who is the spiritual equivalent of tone deaf, it would require the continual contemplation of just these sounds, in this order.

Pretty much everything about this evening was just right, then. The evening sun angled through the high windows of St George’s balcony. We looked down over the pianist’s shoulder right into the open Steinway, and the sight of hammers striking strings produced a lovely visual complement to the patterns unfolding at the keyboard – never was high technology, as it once was, put to better use. The brilliant Basel players and Hewitt worked together as one, to spellbinding effect. There were even two fine 20th century string pieces by someone I’d never heard of – Frank Martin – so we did not overdose on Bach and have to be carried limply into the night.

Off to Bath next weekend to review the jazz bits of the music festival for Jazzwise. There’s more virtuoso piano in prospect from John Taylor, Martial Solal and Django Bates. Pretty sure this one will still stand out in the mind afterwards, brilliant though all three are. And much as I love improvisation, how fantastic to live in a world where, although hearing it always creates a feeling that you may never hear its like again, the Bach effect can be recreated by dropping a disc into the player. Our recordings are by Perahia rather than Hewitt – can I have hers too, please?

Such treasure, live or recorded, provides excuse to repeat my favourite comment on Bach. The biologist Lewis Thomas reviewed the odd assembly of bits and pieces of our culture sent out of the Solar System on the Pioneer spacecraft in the 1970s, in case it one day meets some other intelligence. He approved of the fact that the sound recordings sent on an endless voyage into the dark consisted mainly of Bach. But  as a sample of our species, he did find it a little boastful.

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