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GRAMOPHONE (01/2022)
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Harmonia Mundi 


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Reviewer: Patrick Rucker

Benjamin Alard’s majestic progress through the keyboard music of Bach has reached Vol 5, subtitled ‘Toccata’ and encompassing works from Weimar, written roughly between 1708 and 1717. Alard, a 36-year-old native of Rouen, plays the 2009 Quentin Blumenroeder organ at the Temple du Foyer de l’Âme in Paris; a 1993 pedal harpsichord by Philippe Humeau after a 1720 instrument by Carl Conrad Fleisher, and by Quentin Blumenroeder (2017); and a 1998 clavichord by Émile Jobin, based on a 1773 Thuringian instrument by Christian Gottfried Frederici.

Audaciously enough, the collection opens with Bach’s best-known organ piece, the D minor Toccata, in a performance stripped of melodramatic accretion. This strictly factual, in-your-face approach yields a stylistically cutting-edge reading that is downright fierce. It’s soon clear, however, this is only a stepping stone to far greater things ahead.

There’s a radiant C major Prelude and Fugue (BWV545) along with a mysteriously incandescent A minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV543), both in early versions. Spacious and swirling, the F major Toccata and Fugue (BWV540) seems ready to burst with kinaesthetic joy. Common to all is a crystalline clarity borne of technical finesse, leaving the impression of a Baroque canvas recently restored, its contours and colours freshly vibrant and immediate.

In the seven Toccatas, here represented by BWV910 and 911 on harpsichord and BWV916 on clavichord, Alard sets a new standard. Bach’s unfettered imagination seizes the foreground before a backdrop of architectural logic and cohesion. Meanwhile, the mighty Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV904, unfolds with passionate expressivity and uncommon authority.

It might seem unusual to consign ostensibly public pieces such as Bach’s transcriptions of concertos by Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, Marcello and Telemann to the intimacy of the clavichord. The decision seems more than justified listening to any of the various slow movements, replete with Alard’s strikingly expressive Bebung.

Difficult as it is to choose favourites among these thoughtful, heartfelt and beautifully realised performances, mine may be the chorale preludes peppered across the three discs. Alard’s simple and direct portrayal of Bach’s unshakeable faith achieves transcendent eloquence.

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