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you are a composition. You read Hubert Parry, in his 1909 study of your composer Bach, writing you off as ‘a tantalising enigma not fit to be played as practical music’ and develop an understandable complex. You’ve been around for nearly 300 years and still nobody understands you! You’re talked about more than heard, the music lover’s congenital suspicion of concept being prioritised over music proving insurmountable. File under Vexations by Erik Satie and Structures by Pierre Boulez.

And even when you do manage to snare Hewitt’s imagination, what does she do? In The Guardian, she picks on you, writing in 2012 about how you ‘never seemed to grab me in the same way as the rest of Bach’s music, on first hearing. Could it be that, at the end of his life, Bach had finally written something boring?’ And sitting in Hewitt’s Belsize Park flat ready to talk, that statement gives me my ‘in’. When the email arrives from her label Hyperion confirming our interview, the discovery that Hewitt lives in Belsize Park comes as no surprise. The place is pure pianist nirvana. Up the hill, in the general direction of Hampstead, live Alfred Brendel and Stephen Kovacevich, while down the hill, in St John’s Wood, is the domain of Stephen Hough. Katharina Wolpe, the émigré Austrian pianist who died last year, lived for 40 years on Well Walk, which borders Hampstead Heath, while a blue plaque proudly slapped against a residence on a side road leading off Fitzjohn’s Avenue takes you to Tobias Matthay’s front door. Arriving in Belsize Park, I notice Liam Gallagher extracting a loaf of cash out of an ATM and I’m guessing that he must know his way around a piano, too. Mobile phones and coffee on demand, that classic chain-store pincer movement, is in danger of tipping this community further towards anywheresville. But this North London neighbourhood also feels stubbornly rooted and grateful for its cultural heritage. Once home to Keats, Orwell and Freud, you can see why classical pianists want to adopt it as home.

An itch in the fingers, an awareness in the soul: ‘Die Kunst  der Fuge is one magnificent, hair-raising fugue after the other,’ Hewitt tells me. Why her suggestion, then, that Bach might have written something boring? ‘Because it’s true! Lots of Bach can be boring in the wrong hands, but more so The Art of Fugue, because, unlike the Well-Tempered Clavier, there are no preludes to provide comic relief. I’ve proposed it to concert promoters who I suspect have had bad experiences and don’t want to programme it again. You have to work hard at finding ways of making it come alive.’

And that work, on disc, to bring Bach’s interweaving lines to life has a history that stretches back to 1934. The American pianist Richard Buhlig, the man who persuaded John Cage to study with Arnold Schoenberg, cuts the first recording and unwittingly starts a trend. Charles Rosen, Yuji Takahashi and Pierre-Laurent Aimard – pianists versed in Boulez, Xenakis and Carter – find The Art of Fugue resonating with their modern composition instincts: a score posing questions and requiring decrypting before it can be interpreted. Why did Bach originally notate his fugues on four staves – one stave, one voice? What to do about music that ends before the piece? Leave Bach’s extraordinary valedictory unfinished fugue hanging? Or find another solution? Ought The Art of  Fugue to be realised on piano, harpsichord or organ? Hermann Scherchen, Kurt Münchinger and Rinaldo Alessandrini opted to give it an orchestral life; Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln (6/85) treat each fugue with a shifting combination of instrumental colours. In 2002 early music group Fretwork recorded their version for viol consort (12/02); Slovenian avant-rock group Laibach, on their 2008 album


‘I don’t buy the argument that you must play Bach’s music on the instrument it was written for’ – Angela Hewitt

‘Laibachkunstderfuge’, played the notes with an intensity of purpose that, in live performance, shares space with a fugue of rotating, interlocking audiovisual patterns. Looking through my Edition Peters score while travelling to Belsize Park by tube, Carl Czerny’s editorially grim determination to transform Bach’s speculative masterwork into something concretely ‘piano-y’, each phrasing and dynamic neatly marked in, feels like a disappointing betrayal. Practical musicians, of course, need their practical solutions, but then my eye catches the London Underground map, a true functioning dilemma, a network of enlaced lines overlaid on top of the original 1931 map design created by genius draughtsman Harry Beck. Getting the true measure of The Art of Fugue, its interconnected junctions and far-flung boundaries and sheer physical presence, is similarly beyond our reach. Its systems and the magnitude of its scale remain necessarily insolvable, no matter how deeply and often you travel.

‘I don’t think of it as piano music,’ Hewitt asserts, and I’m reassured. ‘I feel, especially during the slow fugues, that it’s vocal music. I’d love to hear No 1 and 10 sung beautifully – and that’s what I try to do with each line. With some of the fugues, when I was beginning to work on them, I sang every voice in the tempo I wanted to play them at, and then marked in the breath. I’m not thinking of the piano, but the instrument allows me to imitate the human voice and, elsewhere, an organ; an oboe; an orchestra. The range of dynamics I can achieve is terrific. Some of the fugues sound very effective on the harpsichord. Bach designed the pieces with contrasting countersubjects. He does things with the spacing of voicings that are intelligible on a monochrome instrument. But on a piano you’re actually able to distinguish different voices – the piano can make this music sing.’

The argument persists, though, that the piano – and especially the equally tempered modern grand – makes Bach’s music sing in a way that he never intended. Harpsichords pluck strings; pianos hammer them. ‘But this is why the piano was invented,’ Hewitt counters. ‘In his last years he tried the fortepiano and became very interested in it and The Musical  Offering was written with the instrument in mind. A keyboard instrument that could properly sing? He’d have loved that. I don’t buy the argument that you must play Bach’s music


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