- Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
- Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
- Bach's Goldberg Variations
- Trinity-St. Paul's Centre
- Thursday, March 31, 2016
It is the hallmark of great artists that they make you forget all other versions, all other interpretations, of a work when they present their own. Their artistry makes the piece they are playing completely their own, as though it had never before been performed by anyone else.
Young French harpsichordist Benjamin Alard joined that elite club of artists Thursday night, appearing in Toronto under the auspices of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, as he spun out, over close to 90 minutes, Bach's Goldberg Variations. Once relatively obscure, the Goldbergs are now among the most familiar works in the entire keyboard repertoire. Millions of listeners know Glenn Gould's 1955 and 1981 versions, virtually note for note, but there are also other fine interpretations by Simone Dinnerstein, Andras Schiff, Rosalyn Tureck and many others. And that's just on the piano. Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, Wanda Landowska and many others have recorded the Goldbergs on the harpsichord. Making the piece your own is a daunting challenge.
It's a challenge Alard met with aplomb. But exactly with what alchemy Alard conjured up his magic is not easy to say. His Goldbergs are more intense, more focused, more serious than many of his colleagues. He allows the music to unfold at an extremely measured, but perfectly calibrated pace. Virtually every repeat in the score is honoured (and each variation's two halves are repeated); the virtuoso sections that speed by in the Gould versions are slowed down – so that musical meaning rather than sheer joyful physicality dominates in these difficult passages. (Indeed, Alard, although only 30, makes the 1955 Gould recording sound like the jubilant showing-off of an overgrown adolescent, which it more or less was.) Without ever drawing attention to himself, Alard demonstrates his complete mastery over this music – but it's an intellectual mastery, not a physical one.
The Goldberg Variations, despite the apocryphal story of their being commissioned by a Russian count to help him get to sleep, were never actually intended for public performance. They were designed for private study and use. So the challenge of the Goldbergs has always been to maintain listener interest over a long stretch of time with music that essentially repeats itself 30 times, although in 30 remarkably clever ways. Alard managed to keep his performance riveting by carefully selecting the speed at which his variations followed one another. By and large the basic pace of the music was stately and magisterial, although virtuoso speed was at his fingertips when necessary. But the music was presented in an extremely logical and satisfying way.
Mainly this had to do with Alard opening up to our ears the structure of the work that might otherwise have just been confined to the printed page. Although not always immediately audible if you're not listening for them, Bach has sprinkled nine canons throughout the Goldbergs – a sort of a Row, Row, Row Your Boat kind of counterpoint – quite methodically, in every third variation. They are the intellectual heart of the work. But Alard made them the aural heart of the work as well by having the tempo and pace of these canonic variations set the speed and character of the variations which followed them. The canons became not just other variations, but the central pillars on which Alard rested his entire interpretation. Along with his fine sense of line, and his impeccable phrasing and articulation, this sense of overriding structural certainty was one of the most satisfying aspects of his performance.
The Goldbergs lasted close to an hour and a half under Alard's serene, watchful musical eye, more than enough for a full concert. But Tafelmusik preceded the solo second half with a fine Bach solo flute piece performed by Grégoire Jeay, and the sonata from Bach's Musical Offering performed by Jeay, Jeanne Lamon, Christine Mahler and Alard, in a sort of warm-up to his second half. There were moments of fine beauty in the sonata, especially from Jeay's flute, but the playing never managed to completely take off as much as one might have liked.
We had to wait till the concert's second half for that – and, although I'm not usually one to pay undue attention to such things, when enormous peals of thunder rolled into Trinity-St. Paul's just as Benjamin Alard was beginning the minor-key 25th variation of the Goldbergs, the most intense Passion music Bach ever wrote outside of his official Passions, it was hard not to feel as though a greater critic than any of us was expressing sympathy and appreciation for Alard's playing. It seemed to fit. It was that kind of evening Thursday night, that kind of performance.
The program is repeated Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, and Tuesday evening (April 5) at George Weston Recital Hall (tafelmusik.org).