Tuesday 19 January 2021

Bach & the art of transcription: Benjamin Alard's survey of Bach's keyboard works reaches the late Weimar period and the composer's discovery of Vivaldi's concertos

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Complete Works for Keyboard, Volume 4: "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani; Benjamin Allard; Harmonia Mundi

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Complete Works for Keyboard, Volume 4: "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani; Benjamin Alard; Harmonia Mundi

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Benjamin Alard's historical survey reaches the second half of Bach's Weimar period and his discovery of the music of Vivaldi with transcriptions of concertos for harpsichord and for organ

The French organist and harpsichordist Benjamin Alard has reached volume four of his astonishing 17 volume project to record all of Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works. Alard is proceeding on an historical basis, so that in each volume the works for harpsichord that Bach wrote at the period sit alongside the works for organ. Volume One, The Young Heir, covers Bach's early keyboard works alongside those of composers who influenced him, and Volume Two, Towards the North, takes us from 1706 to 1708 (when Bach arrived in Weimar) covering the influence of the North German school on the young composer with Bach's works alongside those of Buxtehude, Reinken and Pachelbel, composers from the Weimar Tablature (the earliest surviving Bach manuscript) and from anthologies compiled by Bach's elder brother. With Volume Three, In the French Style, Bach has reached Weimar and the volume looks at the influence of the French composers such as Couperin who were popular in German courts at the time. Each volume has three or four discs in it, and a notable feature is the way that Alard is playing the music on historical instruments.

With Volume Four of Benjamin Alard's complete survey of Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works, "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani on Harmonia Mundi, we reach the second part of Bach's time in Weimar with the rise of the influence of Vivaldi and Italian composers. Alard plays eight concertos for solo harpsichord after concertos by Vivaldi, the four concertos for solo organ after concertos by Vivaldi and others, and chorale preludes. Alard uses three instruments on the disc, a Roman harpsichord from 1702 now in the Museo Santa Caterina in Treviso (Italy) which has gut strings and an extraordinary variety of stops, the historic Silbermann organ from 1710 (restored in 2010) in Abbaye Saint-Étienne, Marmoutier (France) and, perhaps most intriguingly, a modern pedal harpsichord by Philippe Humeau, a type of domestic instrument which was fairly widespread in German-speaking countries. This means that some of the organ concertos are played on the pedal harpsichord, bringing out the personal, domestic nature of the works.

Bach was in Weimar from 1708 to 1717, but a watershed was marked in 1714. Bach had started to get itchy feet and was looking at other posts. He was a mere organist and the complexities of life in Weimar with its two Dukes cannot have made life easy, but in 1714 he was promoted to Konzertmeister of the Weimar Hofkapelle ‘with official rank below the vice‑Kapellmeister’. Bach would never be a mere organist again. Another important event was the return of one of the ducal family from the Grand Tour, and amongst the treasure that he brought seems to have been a copy of Vivaldi's L'Estro Armonico, Opus 3. The art of keyboard transcription was becoming popular and Bach transcribed Vivaldi's concertos for keyboard, in doing so he not only adjusted the writing to make violin music keyboard friendly, but went further and enriched the musical substance, adding new voices and more. Bach seems to have not only used published sources, but concertos circulating in manuscript copies too, including concertos from La Stravaganza, Opus 4 and Concerti a cinque stromenti, Opus 7 (which wasn't published until 1720)

The historic Silberman organ at Abbaye Saint-Étienne, Marmoutier, France
The historic Silberman organ at
Abbaye Saint-Étienne, Marmoutier, France
We hear six of the concertos on the 1702 Roman harpsichord, which has a wonderful mellow sound which brings a richness of timbre and depth to the music. Alard's playing has a lovely freedom to it, and he brings out the keyboard nature of these works rather than trying to emphasise Vivaldi's originals. These concerto transcriptions are, in a sense, well known; everyone knows that Bach made them and that they were influential in his development, yet they are not frequently played. Nowadays we can sometimes view transcription as a lesser art, but here we hear a young composer exploring and developing and Alard ensures that the performances are vividly engaging. This is certainly not an academic exercise.

The final two concertos are played on a pedal harpsichord, as are three of the organ concertos also based on Vivaldi and on a lost concerto by Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715), the man who brought the scores of Vivaldi's music back from his Grand Tour. The pedal-harpsichord (which does not have gut strings) has a more metallic sound, yet still with a nice mellowness to it. The move to this instrument, rather than organ, gives us a reduction in the sense of scale, the concertos become intimate pieces intended for the domestic chamber and the sense of colour is different to that on an organ. Whilst no complete 18th century pedal harpsichords survive, sufficient documentation exists to suggest that they were popular with organists, particularly as practice instruments (churches were cold and to play the organ you had to pay someone to pump the bellows).

With the final disc we move to the historic Silbermann organ. This is an instrument designed for French use rather than German Lutheran so that whilst Silbermann came from Saxony he was here creating an instrument suitable for French use where the organ took a solo role rather than accompanying Lutheran chorale singing. Alard plays the final organ concerto on this instrument, plus works from the Weimar period including Chorale Preludes from a collection which Bach would later assemble in Leipzig, ending with the Toccata in C minor, including some works of dubious authenticity but which help to widen the picture.  Hearing the Organ Concerto in C major BWV 594 played on the organ takes us to a different world, the timbres and textures of the organ moving us one step further from Vivaldi's original concerto (Violin Concerto in D major "Grosso Mogul" RV 208). And then we move into the organ loft proper, with the Trio for Organ in D minor and a group of chorale preludes. Here, and elsewhere on the disc, you sense that Alard enjoys these juxtapositions of style and it is one of the joys of his approach, a way to break down what can seem the monolithic nature of Bach's keyboard works when viewed in toto.

Unlike earlier sets, these discs contain no music by other composers except of course the music of Vivaldi, Marcello and others courses through the whole disc thanks to Bach's fascinating transcriptions. The CD booklet contains excellent documentation, an introduction to the programme by Alard and a detailed article about the music and Bach's period in Weimar by Peter Wollny.

a Roman harpsichord from 1702 now in the Museo Santa Caterina in Treviso (Italy)
A Roman harpsichord from 1702 now in the Museo Santa Caterina in Treviso (Italy)

I have to confess that ordinarily I would shy away from this sort of complete enterprise, finding the monumentality of Bach's oeuvre somewhat off-putting. But Alard's historical approach, the way he combines genres with works for harpsichord and for organ, and the use of historical instruments make the set very engaging, as does his willingness to bring out the more domestic nature of some of the music by replacing organ with pedal harpsichord. But overall is is the freedom and integrity of Alard's playing, his sense of style and a wonderful sense of engagement which make this a recital to be listened to again and again.

Alard has not finished in Weimar, amongst the planned volumes to come is one devoted to the Orgelbüchlein and then Bach will move to Köthen - so much music and we haven't reached Leipzig yet. This is another benefit of Alard's approach, we get to experience the younger Bach in his own context rather than with Papa Bach looming at us.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - The Complete Works for Keyboard, Volume 4: "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani
Concertos BWV 973, 975, 979, 972, 894, 980, 593, 978, 596, 976, 592, 594
Benjamin Alard (harpsichord, pedal harpsichord, organ)
Recorded June 2020: Museo Santa Caterina in Treviso, Italy, September 2019: Auditorium Antonin Artaud, Ivry, France, May 2019: Abbaye Saint-Étienne, Marmoutier, France

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