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  42:1 (09-10 /2018)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Scott Noriega

This is truly a first: For all the collections of “complete keyboard works” of Bach which reside in my CD collection, not one of them features both the complete organ pieces and works written for solo harpsichord and/or clavichord, all performed by a single artist. This first volume, entitled The Young Heir: 1699–1705, is the beginning of a massive undertaking, the very first volume of what will be one comprising more than 40 discs! This volume contains three discs and features the music of not only Bach, but that of his family, his musical forefathers, and his contemporaries. In this way the keyboardist, Benjamin Alard, has proposed to take his listeners on a journey to explore Bach’s music in new ways: through the lens of the composer’s studies, his influences, and his travels. According to Alard, his eventual project will comprise 14 volumes. Fourteen is an important number in this undertaking as it is the composer’s numeric signature—one which Bach himself used on more than one occasion in his own works. Numerically B-A-C-H equals 14 in the formula: B (2) + A (1) + C (3) + H (8).

For all the excitement I had when I first received these discs, this excitement was somewhat tempered when I saw the contents of these opening discs: Many of the works performed here are early, and they show the composer not yet of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas, or of the C-Minor Passacaglia, but one whose voice was still developing in critical ways. Though I enjoy many of his early works in smaller doses, listening to three discs worth of them in one sitting, and multiple times, was no easy task. But Alard was wise enough to realize this from the start. How does he make the experience not only easier for the listener but also highly enjoyable? By performing the works of other composers on the opening disc—here Bach’s music is compared and contrasted with the music of Froberger, Frescobaldi, Pachelbel, Marchand, Böhm, de Grigny, Kuhnau, and other members of his family. By hearing the music in such a way, we get a clearer picture of the influences which shaped Bach’s musical world. And some of these lesser-known works are spectacular! One of my favorites among them is the beguiling Suite in D Minor by Louis Marchand, something which is comparable to one of the great suites by Couperin or Rameau in its virtuosity, its wonderful sense of pacing, and its varied use of figurations—perhaps especially in the closing chaconne. Throughout Alard makes the most of this music. What makes the journey so special is the ease with which he does so.


The second disc comprises many chorale settings, along with a few preludes, fugues, and a sonata movement. These are all works in which the young Bach sought to bring his own style of composition closer to that of Georg Böhm—one of the premiere organ virtuosos of the day. And one can hear the difference of just a few years. The choral settings are far more advanced in both contrapuntal and harmonic terms than those on the opening disc, along with being more markedly difficult virtuosically. Though a disc featuring around a dozen chorale settings is not my cup of tea, Alard once again invigorates the program through the addition of some of Bach’s early preludes and fugues and through the juxtaposition of sonorities: most of the chorales on the organ, and the preludes and fugues in the middle of the program on the harpsi-chord. Among the highlights of this disc are Alard’s beautifully ornamented, yet easygoing E-Major Capriccio, here performed on the organ (a work normally performed on harpsichord) and another showstopper for the instrument, the mammoth Partite diverse on Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen, BWV 770. Listening to this latter work, one always wonders why Bach cared little for the variation form—one in which he clearly excelled.


If the first two discs favor the organ’s sonority, the third shifts its emphasis to the harpsichord. If the works on this disc are not staples of the concert repertoire, they are works which at least will be more familiar: the early Capriccio on the departure of his beloved brother, BWV 992 (here played on organ, and beautifully so!), some of the early organ preludes and fugues (the fabulous one in G Minor, BWV 535a), and one of my all-time favorites, the A-Minor Aria variata alla maniera italiana, BWV 989. Here we see Bach assimilating all of the aforementioned influences, making them his own. The composer has finally developed his own unique voice in these works: These can already be considered early masterpieces. Alard clearly relishes this music as he lovingly shapes each work to perfection: His tempos never drag, his ornamentation is clear and vibrant, and his sense of line and breath are always in evidence. The maturity of his playing throughout the recital belie his young age.


The discs also make use of the talents of the soprano Gerlinde Sämann in breaking up the monotony of sound which the keyboard instruments may have on the average listener. She performs many of the chorale melodies. Her tone is warm, her diction spot on, and her voice mellifluous. Of special interest also are the wonderful instruments which Alard features here: the André Silbermann organ found in the church of Saint-Aurélie in Strasbourg of 1718, and the Émile Jobin harpsichord (after Ruckers (of 1612) and Dulken (of 1747)). Both instruments are beautiful sounding, particularly the organ in its more muted stops (as can be heard on track 1 of disc 1). Though not all of these works will be of interest to every listener, still Alard’s remark regarding these rarely played works should be heeded: “As with the whole of his oeuvre, these youthful pages—composed between the age of ten and twenty—attest to the fact that [Bach] had an immense talent, which gives us a glimpse of the importance of the message which it will be given to us to discover later on.” With those words, I look forward to volume two of the series, and the many which will eventually follow.

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