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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "The Complete Work for Keyboard - 2: Towards the North"

Benjamin Alard, claviorganuma, organb; Gerlinde Sämann, sopranoc

rec: May, Oct & Nov 2018, Strasbourg, Église Sainte-Auréliea; Béthune, Église Saint-Vaastb
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902453.56 (4 CDs) (© 2019) (3.24'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Spotify (CDs 1 & 2)
Spotify (CDs 3 & 4)

[CD 1: Lübeck]b Johann Sebastian BACH: Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder (BWV 742); Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 718); Fugue in G (BWV 577); Fugue on a theme of Corelli in b minor (BWV 579); Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV Anh 55); Partite diverse sopra O Gott, du frommer Gott (BWV 767); Prelude and fugue in E (BWV 566); Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739); Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein, chorale fantasia (BuxWV 210); Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Fugue in b minor
[CD 2: Hamburg]b Johann Sebastian BACH: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 720); Fantasia super Valet will ich dir geben (BWV 735a); Fugue in c minor (BWV 574b); Fugue in c minor (BWV 575); Fugue in g minor (BWV 578); Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (BWV 1107); Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier (BWV 754); Prelude in a minor (BWV 569); Prelude and fugue in D (BWV 532a); Toccata in D (BWV 912a); Johann PACHELBEL: Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit; Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643?-1722): An Wasserflüssen Babylon, chorale fantasia
[CD 3: Erbarm dich mein]a Johann Sebastian BACH: Ach Gott und Herr (BWV 714)c; Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 1100)c; Als Jesus Christus in der Nacht (BWV 1108)c; Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (BWV 1120)c; Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich (BWV 719)c; Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 1102)c; Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (BWV 1101)c; Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (BWV 721)c; Gott ist mein Heil, mein Hilf und Trost (BWV 1106)c; Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen (BWV 1093)c; In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (BWV 712)c; O Herre Gott, dein göttlich Wort (BWV 1110); O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (BWV 1085); O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (BWV 1095)c; Partite diverse sopra Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (BWV 766); Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 737)c; Wir Christenleut (BWV 1090)c; Wir glauben all an einen Gott (BWV 765)c; Wir glauben all an einen Gott (BWV 1098)
[CD 4: The Traveler]a Johann Sebastian BACH: Canzona in d minor (BWV 588); Fantasie duobus subjectis in g minor (BWV 917); Fugue in a minor (BWV 959); Fugue in B flat (BWV 955a); Sonata in C (BWV 966) (adagio); Sonata in a minor (BWV 965); Toccata in d minor (BWV 913a); Toccata in e minor (BWV 914); Dieterich BUXTEHUDE: Fugue in C (BWV 174); Johann PACHELBEL: Toccata in C

A few years ago the French keyboard player Benjamin Alard started a mammoth project: the recording of the complete keyboard oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. That in itself is not unique: both Bach's music for strung keyboard instruments and his organ works have been recorded complete. However, as far as I know no other performer has recorded both categories complete. The organ works are mostly recorded by organists, who are not active as harpsichordists, at least not professionally. I don't know if any harpsichordist has recorded all of Bach's harpsichord works; most complete editions (for example in the Bach editions by Teldec and Hänssler) are put together from recordings by different performers. From that angle this project is unique indeed.

There are several other aspects which makes this project stand out from the competition. First: the pieces are recorded in chronological order. That in itself is not unproblematic, as often it is not known for sure when Bach composed a particular piece. Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes, often uses words like "probably" or "likely". Therefore the chronological aspect has to be taken with caution.

Second: Bach is put into his historical context by including pieces that have influenced him. In the first volume this influence was documented with pieces by Frescobaldi and Froberger, as representatives of the Italian style, and Louis Marchand, one of the exponents of the French style. The second volume, reviewed here, sheds light on the influence of the North German organ school, represented here by Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reincken. The various genres included here also document Bach's connection to the north of Germany, for instance through toccatas, fugues and pieces based on chorales.

Third: we not only get a mixture of organ and harpsichord pieces, but some items are also played on a different instrument than in most other recordings. Examples are the toccatas from the set of seven that are catalogued as BWV 910 to 916. They are generally considered as being intended for the harpsichord, although some scholars have suggested they may have been conceived as organ works. Here Alard plays the Toccata in D (BWV 912) on the organ, and two other toccatas (BWV 913 and 914) are played on the claviorganum, but then on the organ part of it (exclusively or mostly). The addition of the letter a to the catalogue number indicates that these pieces are performed in their early versions. I wonder whether the later (and better-known) versions will be included in later volumes. It is a bit of a mystery why only one movement from the Sonata in C (BWV 966) is played. I assume we get the entire sonata in a later volume.

That leads to a fourth feature: not only two of the toccatas, but also some other works are presented here in early versions. We have to wait and see whether the later versions will be included in later volumes. If so, that would be an important additional asset of this project, as performers mostly record one of the versions (and usually the later ones).

A fifth aspect concerns the recording of the works based on chorales. In case of the shorter chorale preludes and arrangements, the soprano Gerlinde Sämann is involved. She either sings the chorale separately, in a simple harmonization, following Bach's prelude or arrangement, or the cantus firmus in those pieces. Which of the two options is chosen seems to depend on the character of Bach's arrangements. In some pieces the cantus firmus is so heavily ornamented that a vocal performance would be nearly impossible or sound rather unnatural. However, when the chorale melody is included in a pretty straight fashion, a vocal performance adds something substantial, as the chorale melody is more clearly recognizable than if it would be played. In Ach Gott und Herr there is a second (male) voice singing; is that Alard himself? Not bad at all.

I have nothing but praise for the performances by Benjamin Alard, who has manifested himself as a brilliant performer. The level of performance set with the first volume is confirmed here. A couple of issues need to be mentioned. First, obviously an organ performance of a piece usually played at the harpsichord changes its character to some extent. That is very clear in the case of the Toccata BWV 912a. If played on a larger organ, the tempi cannot be the same as in a harpsichord performance. One has to get used to it. Here the registration needs also to be mentioned. The performer can create dynamic contrasts by shifting from one manual to another, or by coupling two manuals. It is also a common habit among most organists to change registration within a single piece. That is a practice that is historically questionable. Unfortunately, the booklet does not list the registration of single works.

Second, it is nice that different instruments are used. However, the choice of the claviorganum raises questions. Bach undoubtedly knew this instrument, but did he own one and was it played in Bach's household? It is probably telling that in the Oxford Composer Companion devoted to Bach (ed. Malcolm Boyd; Oxford, 1999) the claviorganum is not even mentioned. Alard seldom uses both the organ and the harpsichord parts together. The only piece where he does so, seems to be the Toccata in d minor (BWV 913a), but it is hard to judge as the organ sound is pretty dominant. In the Sonata in a minor (BWV 965), the first three movements are played on the organ, the allemande and courante on the harpsichord, and the sarabande and gigue on the organ again. One wonders why Alard made this choice. It is also clear that the claviorganum is an instrument for domestic performance. It makes much sense to use it for the chorales (allocated to disc 3), especially with a soprano singing the chorale. One may well imagine such performances taking place in a domestic surrounding. Unfortunately, that is more or less undermined due to the fact that the recording took place in a church, with the typical acoustic of it. A more intimate recording would have been more convincing.

Lastly, considering that this volume is about Bach's connection to the North German organ school, it is a bit odd that pieces by Johann Pachelbel have been included, as he did not belong to that school, whereas Georg Böhm - whose influence is discussed by Peter Wollny in his liner-notes - is omitted. He was included in the first volume, but it would have been appropriate to record some of his music here as well.

On balance, these issues are of relatively minor importance, considering the general standard of the performances here and the importance of this project as such. I hope to review later volumes in due course, but the first two have already made clear that this is one of the major recording projects of our time.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Benjamin Alard

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