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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) 
Complete Keyboard Edition - Volume 3
In the French Style / À la française
Benjamin Alard (harpsichord/organ)
rec. 2018/19, Château d’Assas; Abbaye Saint-Étienne de Marmoutier; Auditorium Antonin, Ivry, France
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902457.59 [3 CDs: 209:19]

This is a well-conceived and thoughtful program in which Bach’s music happily sits alongside some of his influences and contemporaries, François Couperin, Johann Kaspar Ferdinand Fischer, Nicolas de Grigny and André Raison. Benjamin Alard shows here he is equally adept at playing their music on both the harpsichord and the organ. As the title suggests, this is the third volume in the series which this time concentrates on the French style. I don’t know how I missed the first two volumes in this series, but on this evidence, I will be looking at investing in them in the near future.

The first disc, entitled À la française, opens with a sparkling performance of the Overture (Suite) in F Major BWV 820, a work which seems to have been less well served by record companies than Bach’s other suites for keyboard. Alard puts in a performance which is superior to that of Robert Hill on Hänssler (HAEN92102). Bursting with energy and enthusiasm, this new recording is nearly a minute and a half quicker than Hill’s recording, which now sounds a little old-fashioned in comparison. This is followed by the F minor Suite, a work which has divided scholars for many a year, the question being whether it is complete, as it only has three movements. Alard once again is well-measured and characterful, especially in the opening Prélude. This is followed by the Suite in E flat Major BWV 819, a work which, along with BWV 818a, is often included in recordings of the French Suites. Here, the Suite is given with its original Allemande rather than in the version BWV 819a which has the later version of the movement. Some performers, such as Hogwood (466 7362), play both Allemandes but sadly not on this disc, so Hogwood wins here but his recording now sounds a little dated. The works not by Bach presented here are a nice diversion; the Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer is new to me and therefore more interesting than those by François Couperin, both of whose pieces are well performed but lack Gallic flair. The disc concludes with the English Suite No. 1 in A major, BWV806a in which Alard sets a blistering pace; he is some five minutes quicker than Blandine Rannou (ZZT111002) and, amazingly, over eight minutes faster than Masaaki Suzuki (BIS-2281 SACD) without ever sounding rushed.

The second disc, entitled Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her, presents a series of organ pieces including a one each by the French organist composers Nicolas de Grigny and André Raison. It opens with an engaging performance of Bach’s Aria nach François Couperin in F Major, BWV 587, which sets the scene well for a superb disc of organ music. This is followed by a beautiful version of the Fuga sopra il Magnificat 'Meine Seele erhebt den Herren', BWV733, which only serves to highlight Alaed’s skill as an organist. The disc contains four versions of the chorale which give this particular disc its title, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV 711, 717, 715 and 663a, each illustrating Bach’s ability to take the same piece and make it new. The two French pieces open with the Pange Lingua: Récit du chant de l'hymne précédent by Gringny, a composer who died aged 31, leaving just a single book of organ pieces and an Overture for harpsichord, which on the evidence of this short piece was far too soon. The Raison piece, Messe du Deuxième Ton: Christe (Trio en passacaille) is just too short an example of his art; at just over seventy seconds it doesn’t really have a chance to develop and show his undoubted skill, which is a shame. There is no such trouble with the final piece on the disc, the C minor Passacaglia BWV 582; here we have Bach examining the theme in every possible way; it is a masterclass in composing a passacaglia and one of my favourite of Bach’s organ pieces.

The third and final disc in this set is entitled La Suite de dances and offers two further English Suites along with a lute suite. Thought to be the earliest of Bach’s keyboard suites, the English Suites, the first of which featured on the first of these discs, is far removed from the baroque English keyboard style, instead resembling the French suite of baroque dances. When we compare Alard’s recording of the suites Nos. 4 and 2 with his recording of the First Suite, the tempos are a little pedestrian and whereas in the first he was much quicker than my other recordings of that suite, here he is a little slower but not by much - only a minute or two compared with the recordings mentioned above, and whilst there are some very nice passages, especially in the slower movements, both Rannou and Suzuki offer a more spirited and scintillating performance. The performance here seems a little safe and I found myself wishing for the sparkle that Alard showed in the First Suite.

The last work on this disc is the Suite ‘aufs Lauten Werck’ in E minor BWV 996 which Bach composed between 1708 and 1717. It is possible that it was written for the lute-harpsichord rather than the lute itself, which would explain why it was composed not in lute tablature but in the traditional score form. Be that as it may, Bach’s lute music is not my favourite and I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually listened to it. In preparation for this review, I listened to the Suite BWV 996 and I must say that here Alard shines; he brings this music to life and it is the highlight of the third disc.

To sum up, then, Benjamin Alard really shines in the playing of the stand-alone suites on the first two discs. The recording of the First English Suite in particular sparkles, leaving you with great expectations for suites 2 and 4 which are sadly dashed and my preferred choice for the English Suites remains Masaaki Suzuki. Of the harpsichords used for this set, I think I prefer the original early eighteenth-century French instrument used on disc one, with its golden-hued timbre, to the slightly harder edged copy of the Fleíscher instrument by Philippe Humeau. The second disc is wonderfully played and recorded, the early eighteenth-century Silbermann organ being perfectly suited to the music. The recorded sound is excellent throughout with all three instruments coming across well and the booklet notes are good, the first half being an interview with Alard. I never really enjoy this format, as I much prefer a more detailed discussion of the music, which is what we get from Peter Wollny in the second part of the notes. Despite my slight disappointment with disc 3, there is enough here to encourage me to investigate other recordings in this enterprising series of the complete keyboard music.

Stuart Sillitoe

Disc 1 Harpsichord
J S Bach:
Overture (Suite) in F major, BWV820 [7:10]
Suite in F minor, BWV823 [6:37]
Prelude in C minor, BWV921 [2:35]
Suite in E flat major, BWV819 [13:54]
Les pièces de clavecin, Op. 2 [6:20]
J S Bach: 
Minuets (3), BWV 841-843 [2:41]
Pièces de clavecin IV: Ordre 21ème in E minor: La Couperin [3:55]
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV828 [14:14]
L'art de toucher le clavecin - Prélude no 5 in A major [2:58]
English Suite No. 1 in A major, BWV806a [20:27]
Disc 2 Organ
Aria nach François Couperin in F major, BWV587 [3:02]
Fuga sopra il Magnificat 'Meine Seele erhebt den Herren', BWV733 [4:27]
Chorale Prelude BWV709 'Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend' [2:12]
Trio super 'Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend', BWV655 [3:52]
Chorale Prelude BWV726 'Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend' [1:03]
Fugue in C minor, BWV546 [4:50]
Chorale Prelude BWV711 'Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr' [3:20]
Chorale Prelude BWV717 'Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr' [3:27]
Chorale Prelude BWV715 'Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr' [1:48]
Chorale Prelude BWV663 'Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr' [7:20]
Fantasia in G major, BWV572 [10:16]
Chorale Prelude BWV734 'Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein' [2:43]
Nicolas de GRIGNY: 
Pange Lingua: Récit du chant de l'hymne précédent [2:54]
Messe du deuxième ton: Christe (Trio en passacaille) [1:13]
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582 [12:05]
Disc 3 Harpsichord 
English Suite No. 4 in F major, BWV809 [23:24]
English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV807 [25:03]
Suite ‘aufs Lauten Werck’ in E minor BWV 996 [14:52]

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