Works for Keyboard, Vol. 4 – Concerti Italiani
Benjamin Alard (keyboards)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902460-62 196:55 mins (3 discs)
This French harpsichordist/organist continues his massive enterprise with a volume designed to display the young Bach’s mastery of keyboard transcription from concertos written by Vivaldi and his coeval Alessandro Marcello. Alard employs three period instruments: an Italian harpsichord with a warm and beefy sound, a restored Silbermann organ, and a pedal harpsichord of the sort used domestically to stand in for organs in German-speaking countries of the 18th century. Bach’s deep knowledge of Italian orchestral music, and his capacity to appropriate a style while adapting it to keyboard textures allows him, says Alard, to recreate the original universe of these works. Bach’s transcriptions should be seen, he says, as a homage.
And this recording represents Alard’s homage to Bach. Just as Bach was an improviser, so must Alard be, because this music imposes much freedom on its interpreters. As Alard points out, although a few of the concertos are well known today, most are only seldom programmed, thanks to the general assumption that as transcriptions they were inferior to ‘original’ works.
With more than three hours of music, this three-disc set is not be consumed at one or even two sittings: it’s like a vast ornamental garden with many side-avenues which the listener is encouraged to explore, and the rewards are many. Despite Alard’s deft variations in register, Vivaldi’s most typical effects – thunder with the massed basses, intense beauty in the high solo violin line – don’t always come off ideally here, but the pedal harpsichord version of the ‘Great’ G minor Fantasy and Fugue (which Glenn Gould later made his own) works brilliantly. Organ transcriptions of six chorale preludes, followed by flights of mercurial fancy in the Toccata in C major BWV 564, round off this collection in great style.