J.S.Bach The Complete Works For Keyboard: Kothen 171701723; For Maria Barbara; Benjamin Alard (Harpsichord & Clavichord (3 cds) Harmonia Mundi 902469.71, 6/2023. 3 hrs 24’18, *****
There have been many first rate recordings of J.S Bach keyboard works in recent years. It would be hard for an enthusiast to keep up and for someone starting out in Early music it would be hard to decide on a first harpsichord recording of the Master. Prominent among the finest exponents of historical instruments are the names of Richard Egaar, Masaaki Suzkui and Peter Watchorn. What they deliver is familiar enough in terms of shape; they record the well-known suites French, English and Partitas along with the big works Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations. It is easy enough to compare these recordings with the better known piano versions and decide whether they constitute too separate repertoire or whether one’s preferences lie with one or the other instrument. However, in the last few years a most ambitious project has emerged in the work of Benjamin Alard on Harmonia Mundi. This aims at nothing less than recording ALL of Bach keyboards work, ethier on harpsichord, clavichord or organ and present it in a thematically and roughly chronological way. This has never been tried before. What’s more, the artist and his instrument committee will make many creative editorial decisions along the way; all of them fully explained in the excellent liner notes. These include:adding works from other composers that shed light on Bach’s development. Or maybe even just for comparison. The first two volumes show Bach as “the young heir” and in volume two, the disciple of Buxtehude and other North German organists. But in the last installment, Couperin appears out of nowhere and samples of his L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin are squeezed in between the French Suites. I found this inspiration to add much to the presentation of Bach. They do not explain anything about the source of Bach’s inspiration but they illuminate some aspect of his musical language. The Couperin, of course, also makes for an interesting comparison; if the musical affinities are slight one feels immediately that we are at approximately the same artistic level.
The more significant novelty to this project, however, is the creative process in choosing which instruments to use for which pieces. While the artist presumably has final say, he appears to be guided by a special cabal named Le Cercle des Claviers de Bach. This group underwrites the expense of a recording project that takes place in multiple locations, borrows the very finest instruments both historical and modern and even goes so far as to modify instruments for studio purposes. Their site can be found here: Benjamin Alard, Le Cercle des Claviers de Bach.
I find this historical and instrument-forward approach attractive and instructive of new ways to hear the music. It is very much related to (and perhaps inspired by) other Early Music projects such as the 7 disc set of the entire William Byrd keyboard opus played on a variety of organs, harpsichords, clavichords and even a muselar virginal. (Hyperion 1996)
Alard allows himself more freedom in choosing which instrument to use for which piece; he feels no compulsion to record an organ concerto on an organ. The diminutive clavichord might be suitably employed for this purpose. And a piece such as the Capriccio for a Departing Brother which might be more familiar on piano (Angela Hewitt) or harpsichord, is here played on the organ. For someone hearing the piece for the first time it wouldn’t matter much. But for someone who knows it well, this might even be more interesting in this more solemn rendering.
It all depends, of course, on how well the artist can deliver the goods. From the evidence on any or all of the discs released so far, it is clear that Alard is a musician of the first rank. This was clear to me already from a superb recording of the French Overture and Italian Concerto on a 2010 Alpha recording. This disc sits on my shelf in a palace of honor where it belongs next to the Egaar, Sempe, Hantai, Joye, Yates, all reference quality artists. I would characterize his signature trait as an extreme attention to melodic shape, allowing each voice to communicate its beauty without getting bogged down in the ever-present harmonic argument. Neither as rigid as Gustav Leonhardt nor as free as Maasaki Suzuki in regard to “broken hands” rubato, he occupies a middle zone. The French claveciniste feeling tempered by some German austerity. Where he decides on velocity, he brings such a fleetness of touch that one never gets lost in a clatter of metal. His ornamentation is apt and tasteful.
The current release volume eight brings us to a momentous period in Bach’s career, his appointment at Anhalt-Cothen. Alard always connects the chronology to a theme titled “For Maria Barbara”, who was Bach’s first wife of 13 years, the mother of Emanuel and Friedemann Bach and 5 other children. Her death occurred in 1720 about midway of Bach tenure at Anhalt-Cother in the service of Prince Leopold. This gives it a geographical and temporal locus as well as a more vague dedicatory dimension.
We begin this volume with a transcription of the works for solo violin. There has been a tradition of attributing the monumental sei solo, or suits for solo violin to the year of his wife’s death and finding in them a tombeau, a work in commemoration of a death, perhaps even a meditation on death itself, which in Bach;s mind would have had sacred as well as a deeply personal meaning. This is impossible to verify but resonates with the experience of listening to these profound works, which ask of the violin impossible things. Here they are played on the clavichord. I do not think this work has ever been recorded on this instrument, It has been transcribed for all manner of things, Bass Clarinet, Marimba, Accordion, etc.)
The clavichord is a very soft voiced keyboard, with little hammers hitting the strings rather than plectra that pluck. There is a built in muffle and rapid decay. For newcomers it might sound like the harpsichord has complained of the cold and grandma has piled up her old shawls, and afghans and down comforters on top of the instrument and then placed the cat on top for good measure. However quiet it is there is a minimal possibility of dynamic contrast; volume controlled by how hard one strikes the key. The louder passages come with a clatter of mechanism, not quite the rattling of skeleton bones like in some harpsichord recordings; but something that blurs the sound image.
The engineers and instrument gurus supporting this project worked especially hard on making this recording work; The liner notes describe some key interventions to stabilize and maximize the sonority. Overall I would say that relative to clavichord recordings I have heard that they have succeeded. One must simply attune oneself to its particular voice. I do not suggest adjusting the volume upward. It must be listened to leaning forward with ears reaching out eagerly for detail.
It is a strange choice for the mighty chaconne, which seems to demand large scale orchestration, but it was exactly here that the clavichord succeeded for me in making a completely new statement. It is a dramatic oration delivered in a whisper. Alard is fine judge of its intricacy, an able guide to the labyrinth.
The violin works are a real addiction to this project. That they should be included as keyboard literature–on the basis of a reference by one of his sons that Bach played them on the clavichord– is a happy inspiration.
The most distinctive work on the first disc is the very odd and angular Pedal exercitium, a single voiced study in a bass line. This is not something a serious student of Bach is likely to have encountered before. Originally, it was a study for the organ pedals. Here it is most probably played with the left hand. It is just another strange discovery of Alard and including here is brilliant.
The enormous fantasia in G-minor ends the first disc with an audacious improvisation which modulates wickedly and indulges in fantastical chromatic harmonic arguments. It sounds utterly strange on the little clavichord. A demonstration piece for an organ virtuoso turned into rousing tempest in a world of miniature things.
The second disc features 15 small inventions and sinfonias played on the same instrument. Here the simplicity of voices perfectly matches the modest sonority of the clavichord. The first French Suite then takes the stage (after a dazzling prelude by Couperin) and this on a different instrument, a harpsichord from 1645 by Joannes Couchet. (Ravelment from 1720) This is a glorious sounding keyboard, perfectly captured by the expert engineers at Harmonia Mundi. French Suites 3 & 5 are separated by the most delicate and refined of Couperin pieces from the “l’Art de Toucher”. I think this interleaving of the French Baroque genius into the Bach oeuvre the happiest inspiration of all; it adds delight as an aesthetic counterweight to the polyphonic gravitas of Bach.
The Third disc is more of the same. The Clavichord working diligently through the little pieces while the harpsichord undertakes the dances of French Suites 2,4 and 6, as well as three more COuperin pieces which even for a Bach lover such as me are the finest things in this recital. (Fortunately for Baroque fans, Alard has broken up his Bach project to record a Couperin Family themed disc which has also been released by Harmonia Mundi): The Couperin Family
Alard’s project is breathtaking in scope and most impressive to witness as it unfolds. One can only wait in anticipation to see what the next installment will bring. As good as this issue is, I would not recommend this one as the one to start with. The honors there would probably go to volume three titled “In the French Style”. There we are treated to two spectacular instruments, three of the large scale English Suites and a Silberman organ growling its way through the Passacaglia and whispering its course through some shorter and relatively unknown works by both Bach and his contemporaries.
An equally good choice for someone who has not heard the Well-Tempered Clavier Book One on the harpsichord is volume 6. The 24 preludes are the supreme test, and one that Alard passes with brilliant marks. And this session features another historical harpsichord, surely carefully selected and prepared by the industrious instrument committee.
So far, though each installment is recommended without qualification, This is truly a stupendous recording and artistic achievement.