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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Trio Sonatas (1723-5, rev. 1730s?)
Trio Sonata No.1 in E flat, BWV525 [12:01]
Trio Sonata No.2 in c minor, BWV526 [13:13]
Trio Sonata No.3 in d minor, BWV527 [13:46]
Trio Sonata No.4 in e minor, BWV528 [12:22]
Trio Sonata No.5 in C, BWV529 [15:38]
Trio Sonata No.6 in G, BWV530 [12:49]
Benjamin Alard (organ Bernard Aubertin, 2005, Saint-Louis-en-l’Īle Church, Paris)
rec. November 2008, Saint-Louis-en-l’Īle Church, Paris. DDD.
Pitch: a’ = 440Hz.
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
Originally released as ALPHA 152
ALPHA 609 [79:58]

This is one of the latest batch of releases in Alpha’s mid-price reissue series, selling for around £8, but, most surprisingly for more than £11 in lossless download quality. I noted the same perplexing price dichotomy in reviewing another mid-price download reissue from the Outhere group, this time on the Arcana label, in my recent round-up of music from the Baroque and before. I really do wonder if some of the recording companies still have a built-in aversion to making their releases attractive as downloads. The dealers tell me that it’s the labels that set the illogical prices, not them. Can they want to encourage us instead to stream their music, when they often complain that streaming services are not paying their way?

This was an auspicious time for Alpha to reissue this recording, with Benjmain Alard currently working his way through JSB’s complete keyboard output, on organ and harpsichord, for Harmonia Mundi, three CDs at a time – review of Volume 3. If that’s too much for you at once, even though the sets are offered at budget price, this older Alpha reissue of the Trio Sonatas may be more to your liking.

Though probably designed as teaching materials for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, these Bach trio sonatas are much more than their didactic purpose would suggest. Bach’s music frequently reminds me of a great clockwork machine winding inexorably down, but setting the listeners dancing as it does so. I’m not much given to jigging about, but the performances of these sonatas make me want to do just that. The same feeling is engendered by the best performances of many passages in his church cantatas, but I can’t imagine the staid Lutherans of Leipzig dancing in the aisles during the four-hour Sunday Hauptgottesdienst. On Friday evening at Zimmermann’s coffee house, maybe.

Alard’s recording was well worth having at full price. He makes this complex music, written in three parts, one for each hand, one for the pedals, sound like the easiest thing in the world to play. It isn't.  More to the point, these performances remind us of the beauty of the music. The booklet tells us nothing about the organ and only a little about the music; my suspicion that it was a cut-down version of the much more detailed original was confirmed by looking that up. The original includes several photographs of the organ and, more to the point, a complete specification of the organ and an article by its builder in which he describes it as basically designed for the German Baroque. It does sound an ideal instrument for these sonatas. It would have been even more helpful to have had the registration for each movement, but I do recommend prospective purchasers to try to read the original booklet, if possible, in preference to the shorter version with the reissue.

Alard generally chooses a bright tone for the manuals, with moderate use of 16’ tone for the pedals. Even with the right organ, it’s all too easy for organists to over-do the bass with lots of 32’ tone. Alard’s choice sounds just as right as his interpretations of the music. I listened to Christopher Herrick’s well-regarded recording of these sonatas for comparison (Hyperion CDA66390, Archive service or download from There’s also a box set of Herrick’s Bach – review – now available as download only; almost 20 hours at an attractive price of £45 in lossless sound, with pdf booklet, from Writing about two recordings of instrumental transcriptions of these sonatas in January 2013, I found myself preferring Herrick’s lighter touch in their original keyboard form. Herrrick is generally a trifle faster than Alard, though never over-hasty – indeed, he sometimes sounds a little more considered. Those prepared to download will find the Hyperion recording, at £8.99, albeit a few pence more expensive than the Alpha CD, better value than the latter as a download. Otherwise, there’s very little to choose between two very fine recordings. Both capture the sounds of their respective organs very well.

David Goode, whose very likeable series of recordings of Bach’s organ music for Signum, like Herrick on a Metzler organ, was released volume by volume as a download only – available from – and later reissued as a 16-CD set (SIGCD640: Recommended – review) interspersed these trio sonatas with other works on several of the volumes. You could do much worse than choose that complete set – but, again, the download is much more expensive than the CDs: better to go for individual volumes from Hyperion at £7.99 each in lossless sound. (Also available in hi-res 24-bit.)

If you want to hear Wilhelm Friedemann’s own (instrumental) trio sonatas, there’s a fine recording of his chamber music on CPO – review. There’s also an attractive 2-CD set from the Ricercar Consort, very inexpensive at £7.50 for the twofer (RIC138 – Spring 2020/1B).

Disappointment aside that the booklet has been so severely pruned from the original – a common complaint with these Alpha reissues – this reissue is well worth considering alongside the Herrick and Goode recordings. Don’t be put off by the cacti on the typically bizarre cover; there’s nothing prickly about music, performance or recording. Everything about this reissue – apart from the price of the download – is just right.

Brian Wilson

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