Benjamin Alard

Johann Sebastian Bach: Clavier Übung, Vol. 1

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Glenn Gould defined Bach's partitas as blazing virtuoso vehicles, and such has been the fame of his readings that even soberer keyboardists tend to push the intensity when it comes to these works. But, as the excellent booklet notes by Gilles Cantagrel here explore, Bach did not intend the partitas as virtuoso music or as a vehicle for his own considerable talents. Instead they marked his debut, at the age of 41, in the world of commercial music for publication. He published the partitas himself as volume one of a proposed Clavier Übung (Piano Exercises) and sold them through a network of dealers around northern and central Germany, and keyboard amateurs found them challenging but gripping. One buyer, a woman named Luise Kulmus, wrote to her boyfriend that they were "as difficult as they are beautiful. If I play them ten times, I still feel myself to be a beginner with them." The young French harpsichordist Benjamin Alard seems to tie into this more technically modest but no less profound vision of the partitas in this gorgeously packaged release on France's Alpha label. Alard's tempos are on the slow side, and his ornamentation is careful and precise rather than coruscating. Many of the faster dances have a most unusual combination of easy grace and structural rigor. The sarabandes have a lot of subtlety in the attack but may or may not maintain the momentum (try the one from the Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 828, CD 2, track 11, to see how you feel). Each album in Alpha's series includes a reproduction of a painting, together with analysis by Quebec art historian Denis Grenier, and these are often worth the purchase price all by themselves. On display here is Vermeer's View of Delft, not chronologically apposite, but absolutely of a piece with the partitas in their combination of bourgeois appeal and technical profundity. "Based on a rigorous network of horizontals and verticals, providing a solid foundation for the composition, [the painting] calls on diverse artistic means suggesting both permanence and the accident that embodies it." That could serve as a pretty good description of Bach's partitas, which here receive a genuinely fresh look. Booklet notes are in French and English.

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