Many know the famous story of how an eager, young Bach journeyed 10 days by foot to a distant village to hear the great organist Buxtehude, staying many months longer than he was given permission. It is fortunate probably that he stayed so long to learn from this master - for such early yet luminous works like the toccatas here clearly show the influence of this virtuositic organist and his free, improvisatorial manner of composing (termed "stylus fantasticus"). In her abundant and well-written liner notes, Hewitt quotes one authority on this style: "It is the most free and unrestrained method of composing; it is bound to nothing, neither to words nor to a melodic subject; it was instituted to display genius and to teach hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues." While not purposely written as a grouping or teaching tool, these seven so-called Toccatas were assembled together based on these characteristics. They are free displays of virtuosity with daring runs of scales, arpeggios and the like - music full of vitality yet free of form for the most part.
The 2005 Gramophone Guide gave this CD the top "Gold Star" rating (3/3 stars) and concluded: "Her performances could hardly be more stylish or impeccable, more vital or refined. Hewitt's playing is personal and characterful without resorting to self-serving or distorting idiosyncracy." Moreover, the Penguin Guide summarized this recording this way: "We have no hesitation in declaring this the most stimulating and rewarding CD of these complex and episodic works on any instrument, consistently showing Bach's youthful explorations at their most stimulating."
Indeed, there is much variety, inventiveness and drama in this music that Angela Hewitt brings out to the fullest - from the songful and even contemplative slower interludes to rippling demisemiquaver scales that open some pieces to the powerful, complex fugues. Perhaps the richest aspect of Hewitt's playing here is her ability to skillfully and subtly shape the repeating episodes within the fugues by her nuances of color and dynamics. Many of these fugues have short themes that Bach incessently repeats throughout the piece (a famous trait of Bach that he is able to pull off to great effect). With most composers or playing, such repeated motiffs would quickly become monotonous or grating to the ear - as some Toccatas can be on the harpsichord as Hewitt points out. But, with Bach's skillful contrapunctal writing and Hewitt's imaginative playing, she transforms these repetative fugal sections into music of wonderous appeal and fascination - building an unfolding drama within the piece to great effect. The G-minor and D-minor Tocattas are fine examples of how Hewitt's subtle touches transforms these incessent fugues into lumanscent wonders.
One recording of the Toccata in C-minor that is quite interesting by comparison is that of Martha Argerich. While not noted for her playing of Bach, Miss Argerich in the early 80's put to disc a dynamic performance of this Toccata (along with a Partita and English suite on DG). Where Ms. Argerich's bold performance reminds one of Bach's legendary powerful tone and command, Hewitt's touch is worlds apart in its subtltry, charm, inflection and nuance. Hearing Argerich's version along side Angela Hewitt's performance helps to illuminate Miss Hewitt's style more clearly - which is one of longer, more-lyrical flow with a notably beautiful tone and something intangible that might be best called a "heartfelt quality." Hewitt's C-minor Toccata exudes a more songful flow and subtle artistry compared to Argerich's more punchy and "intellectual" reading. Actually, Hewitt's reading can easily be described as "pretty" by comparison (perhaps too pretty for some). She is always a pianist and utilizes the greater expressive range of her Steinway to achieve maximum emotional qualities and tonal beauty.
So, overall, Angela Hewitt's Toccatas are at the top of the class as Penguin Guide and Gramophone notes. With repeated listening, it has become a favorite of her entire discography - part for Bach's fascinating composing and part from Hewitt's sparkling and full-of-life pianism. Compositions - 5 stars; Performance - 5 stars; Sound quality - 4.5 stars.