Keyboardist Benjamin Alard is an important force in France's early music scene. He is a versatile player, performing on organ, harpsichord, and clavichord, and playing in chamber music and ensemble music as well as solo. Alard was born on July 13, 1985, in Rouen, France, and grew up in the village of Les Grandes-Ventes in the Normandy region. A local parish priest introduced him to the organ and quickly spotted his talent, sending him to the Ecole nationale de musique in Dieppe. Developing an interest in early music, Alard went on to the Rouen Conservatory, where he studied with Louis Thiry and François Ménissier. He began harpsichord studies in Paris with Elisabeth Joyé and then, in 2003, enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, studying organ with Jean-Claude Zehnder and harpsichord with Andrea Marcon. Alard won major prizes on both instruments; in 2004, he took both first prize and audience prize at the Bruges International Harpsichord Competition, with Gustav Leonhardt as judging chair. Still just 20, he was designated after a competition as "co-titulaire" of the new organ at Paris' Saint-Louis-en-l'Île church, where he established a concert series. He participated in a complete cycle of Bach's organ works performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 2009, and in 2012, he embarked on a five-year residency at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, Spain, performing during that period a complete cycle of Bach's harpsichord music. Alard has toured as a soloist as far afield as East Asia, Turkey, and the U.S., and he is a frequent guest at French festivals. In addition to solo performing and recording, he is a well-established collaborator with early music ensembles, notably as a continuo player for Sigiswald Kuijken's group La Petite Bande. Alard has made a number of recordings, all of them at this writing devoted to the music of Bach. He made several recordings for the Alpha label and then, in 2018, moved to Harmonia Mundi for the first volume in a cycle of Bach's complete keyboard music. In 2021, that cycle reached its fourth album, Alla Veneziana.
© James Manheim /TiVo
© James Manheim /TiVo
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Classical - Released March 11, 2010 | Alpha
Glenn Gould defined Bach's partitas as blazing virtuoso vehicles, and such has been the fame of his readings that even soberer keyboardists tend to push the intensity when it comes to these works. But, as the excellent booklet notes by Gilles Cantagrel here explore, Bach did not intend the partitas as virtuoso music or as a vehicle for his own considerable talents. Instead they marked his debut, at the age of 41, in the world of commercial music for publication. He published the partitas himself as volume one of a proposed Clavier Übung (Piano Exercises) and sold them through a network of dealers around northern and central Germany, and keyboard amateurs found them challenging but gripping. One buyer, a woman named Luise Kulmus, wrote to her boyfriend that they were "as difficult as they are beautiful. If I play them ten times, I still feel myself to be a beginner with them." The young French harpsichordist Benjamin Alard seems to tie into this more technically modest but no less profound vision of the partitas in this gorgeously packaged release on France's Alpha label. Alard's tempos are on the slow side, and his ornamentation is careful and precise rather than coruscating. Many of the faster dances have a most unusual combination of easy grace and structural rigor. The sarabandes have a lot of subtlety in the attack but may or may not maintain the momentum (try the one from the Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 828, CD 2, track 11, to see how you feel). Each album in Alpha's series includes a reproduction of a painting, together with analysis by Quebec art historian Denis Grenier, and these are often worth the purchase price all by themselves. On display here is Vermeer's View of Delft, not chronologically apposite, but absolutely of a piece with the partitas in their combination of bourgeois appeal and technical profundity. "Based on a rigorous network of horizontals and verticals, providing a solid foundation for the composition, [the painting] calls on diverse artistic means suggesting both permanence and the accident that embodies it." That could serve as a pretty good description of Bach's partitas, which here receive a genuinely fresh look. Booklet notes are in French and English. © TiVo