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American Record Guide: (09-10/2020) 
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020940860


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Backed by the marketing machinery of a major label, Alard continues his series advertised to include "the complete works for keyboard" by Bach. Each boxed set presents a different phase of Bach's career, loosely tracing the developments of his styles next to other music that influenced him. This set is supposedly about Bach's Weimar years, 1708-17 more or less, along with French influences on him in that part of his career. The "influence" comparisons here are 13 minutes of harpsichord pieces by Fischer and Couperin. We're supposed to overlook the incongruity of bringing in a Couperin piece from his fourth book (1730), far in Bach's future—he will have made two more career moves since Weimar. So far in the series, Alard picks only a few representative examples from each genre. For example, we've passed through the toccata years already without getting all of them. We'll come back to this general problem of skipping pieces.

I'm intending everything here as appreciative and constructive criticism. I want Benjamin Alard and this series to do well and rise to their potential. As I said for volumes 1 (J/A 2018) and 2 (S/O 2019), Alard's interpretations for Harmonia Mundi tend to be bland. That's still the case here, and it's getting worse rather than better. The booklet has two pages of excerpts from glowing reviews of those first two volumes. I've read some other reviews elsewhere, and it seems that everyone except me is highly praising this series. I'd like to, and the organizing idea is great on paper, but it's my duty to report with forthrightness what I'm really hearing—the detailed reasons for disappointment and concern. Alard is capable of doing so much better than this.

Let's get the least attractive part of this new set out of the way first—the 62 unpleasant minutes of disc 3. The performance and the sound are both at fault. It starts with the English Suites 4 and 2 in Alard's stiffly metrical and humdrum readings. The tempos are OK, but the phrasing doesn't breathe or dance. The producer wasn't paying sufficientattention, either, in the first Minuet of Suite 4. The way it's edited, there is a wrong bass note in bar 22 three of the four times through it and a wrong bass note in bar 14 once. There is a clumsy edit in bar 21 of Suite 2's Courante. The English Suite performances by Paolo Zanzu (this issue) are far more satisfactory, having a broader range of articulations and nuances of tempo, along with cleaner production. Zanzu conveys joy, but Alard only a dutiful sequence of scarcely differentiated notes.


Alard's performance of the Lautenwerck suite (S 996) is likewise prosaic. The piece gets none of the swagger brought to it in Gustav Leonhardt's 1984 recording for Philips (more recently available in Decca's "Legend" 15CD box), or the majestic gravity from Peter Watchorn (Musica Omnia, J/F 2015). Alard recorded this program in the Auditorium Antonin Artaud in Ivry, France. The acoustic is so muddy and ugly for the midrange and bass that it is difficult to hear any expressive releases of the notes. (Maybe it's fitting that the hall is named for an artist who promoted shock confrontations in a "Theatre of Cruelty".) Alard's coupled registrations make things worse instead of better—like shouting. Suite 2's first Bourree and Gigue are oppressively heavy and tiring. The instrument makes it worse. It is a modern Humeau harpsichord from 1989, in a German style modeled after Fleischer. As recorded, this harpsichord's tone sounds strangely flabby, plunking with dull thuds rather than singing with a bloom. It's not clear what has gone wrong with the instrument (or the miking?) here, but there is a serious lack of treble in this recording. Even when Alard adds the 4 foot stop, there is not enough treble presence to cut through those acoustics. The low tuning might be another contributing factor in these thick doldrums—a whole tone below modern pitch. Was this instrument designed and strung to be tuned that low? A different 1989 Humeau harpsichord sounds fantastic in Carole Cerasi's Couperin set (N/D 2019), so I'm reluctant to believe that it's the builder's fault here.


Disc 1 is an assortment of suites, preludes, and isolated dances. The harpsi-chord and acoustics are much better. The booklet tells us nothing about this instrument except that it's "early 18th Century" and now belongs to the Chateau d'Assas, where they made the recording in May 2018. I found out that the castle dates from 1759, and it is a private residence today. It has a plaque commemorating harpsichordist Scott Ross (1951-89), who recorded some Rameau, Scarlatti, and Couperin there with this anonymous French harpsichord. Along with teaching masterclasses and making recordings there, Ross lived in a tower of the castle for a while before moving across the street.

But, back to the present: how is that well seasoned 300 year old harpsichord doing now? For Alard's recording it is tuned a whole step low, like the Humeau harpsichord in Ivry, but its tone develops more beautifully. Ross had played it tuned a half step higher than this. The suites are the extra ones that don't get recorded much, that didn't make it into the later set of six French suites. Their catalog numbers are S 818a, 819, 820, and the fragmentary 823. The other two orphaned suites 822 and 823 appeared in Volume 1. Alard's performances are inoffensive in these, but he's breezing through them efficiently and taking few interpretive risks. Suite 818a in A minor is substantially different from 818 in every movement, along with having a prelude. Will we get a recording of the other version of 818 from Alard? We don't know. What has happened to the missing weirdly chromatic alternate Allemande from suite 819, bypassed here without comment? What's the policy on pieces like the omitted Suite 821, which has fallen into the "doubtful" section of the Schmieder catalog, but which were included anyway in the generally better complete Bach edition on Hanssler CDs?

I'm bringing up these details because every package in this Harmonia Mundi series says we will be getting "the complete works for keyboard". Then why are so many pieces skipped along the way? We get English Suite 1 here in the version from a little used manuscript (S 806a, a copy made probably by Walther). It has many changed bass notes and uncommon choices of sharps vs naturals in the right hand. The Prelude is shorter, and we are missing the second Bourrée along with doubles of the second Courante. This is interesting as a variant, and better played than English suites 2 and 4. It's also an unreliable copy of the music, mostly a curiosity to hear inadvertent corruptions in copying. It just sounds jarringly wrong.


The prospective buyer needs to know, for perspective in the bigger picture: it appears we are going to end up with a "complete" Bach set that lacks the expected standard versions of some pieces in favor of some rare or capricious alternatives. There were some alternative readings in the first two volumes, as well, along with undocumented transpositions of some pieces.

The haphazardness bothers me in this supposedly comprehensive survey of Bach's work. I'd prefer to hear the music at its best for the main reading, treating any rarities as an appendix for specialists to study separately. The other tidbits on Disc 1 include three Minuets (S 841 843) that Bach wrote for his eldest son's keyboard lessons and two pieces by Couperin (one anachronistic, as I pointed out). These Minuets are anachronistic with the present program, too; they were written after the family had left Weimar. The safely simple performances work well enough. Bach's Praeludium (S 921) is improvisatory noodling that ends in a wrong key, and it doesn't fit the character or key of the suite placed after it in this program. A prelude and chaconne by Fischer get the best performances here, by far. They show that Alard can play with a spontaneous and imaginative delivery, using a broad range of articulations and flexible tempos, but he just chooses not to do that very often in Bach's music. That's frustrating. As I mentioned two years ago (reviewing Volume 1, J/A 2018), and as I've checked again to be sure, Alard's 2010 set of Bach Partitas for Alpha is much better than he's been doing for this Harmonia Mundi series. So are his inspiringly good 2011 Alpha disc of the Italian Concerto and French Ouverture and his 2008 disc of Bach transcriptions for Editions Hortus. (ARG hasn't reviewed any of these.) What's going on now? He is no longer playing with such refinement or grace. Anyway, the Fischer is terrific, but no one is buying this series for Fischer or Couperin. Organ selections make up the 65 minutes of Disc 2. At the Saint Étienne abbey, Marmoutier, Alard plays a 1710 Andreas Silbermann organ that is now converted to equal temperament. Like these harpsichords, it's tuned a whole step below modern pitch. Bach worked at Weimar with organs pitched a minor third higher than this when he composed the music. Why choose an organ this flat for the recording? He gives some of this organ music an attractive lilt, with subtly unequal notes. His main concession toward French style, though, is mostly the  frequent use of registrations with the reeds and the mutation stops. We get to hear some French influence on Bach in short pieces by Nicolas de Grigny and André Raison. There is the rarity of Bach's Aria in F (S 587), a trio arranged from a movement in the third part of Couperin's Nations. Bach's authorship of this arrangement isn't firmly established. The ten minute Pièce d'Orgue (S 572) is underpowered and played in a matter of fact manner, when it could have been the grandest piece in this program. Part of the weakness here might be this organ's design, having only flutes and reeds in the pedal—no principal stops. The C-minor Passacaglia (S 582) doesn't sound either passionate or dramatic, but merely static in repeating its ostinato (always brought out loudly in the registrations). I like the interesting pairing with the Raison passacaglia. It's nice to hear three settings of Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend collected together, and four of Allein Gott. Once again, Alard picks less familiar Weimar manuscripts for some of these, instead of the typical consensus editions most organists know and use. The best performance here is the Magnificat fugue (S 733), where Alard sounds more involved with the emotional character of the text. As with the Fischer harpsichord pieces in this set, this glimpse of great potential and ability shows that the other performances—coasting through the notes—aren't good enough. I want to hear Bach's music make my day, not merely sound dutiful.


The packaging is OK. Harmonia Mundi has gone back to using sturdy side opening card stock for the envelopes, as in Volume 1. In Volume 2 there were flimsy paper sleeves opening at the top. There continue to be photos of Alard on all the envelopes. The notes are good enough, describing what it must have been like for young Bach (age 23) and his small family to move into service of the duke at Weimar, and to spend some productive years there.

There are so many questions. How will volume 4 and its successors fill in the holes that the series keeps opening up? Will we get the missing movements of English Suite 1, along with the three other English suites? Will Alard recapture the greatness of his own harpsichord skills from ten years ago and use them more consistently? Will he re-develop a more musically engaged performing manner when the emphasis is the growth of Bach's Italianate style? We've had only three of the seven Toccatas, so far, and two of those were in odd versions; where are the rest of them? When will we get more of the Weimar organ music? There have been problems with some of the instruments in all three volumes; will that keep happening? Can the Ivry hall be avoided?


Bradley Lehman


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