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Music Harpsichordist makes Tafelmusik debut with Bach’s Goldbergs

Benjamin Alard is one of the great harpsichordists of his generation, who will be presenting Bach’s famous Goldberg Variations this week in Toronto.

Benjamin Alard is one of the great harpsichordists of his generation, who will be presenting Bach's famous Goldberg Variations this week in Toronto, as well as playing with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Not quite taking coals to Newcastle, Alard invading the home base of the most famous piano exponent of the Goldbergs – a certain Mr. Gould – is more like taking solar energy to Newcastle. The Globe and Mail caught up with the French keyboard player via e-mail earlier this week.

Is there an advantage in hearing the Goldbergs on the instrument for which Bach wrote it, the harpsichord? Are there things about the Goldbergs that are clearer on the harpsichord than on the piano?

For me, the instrument is not the most important factor, rather it's what the musician actually does with the music of Bach. The flaw of the piano is that it offers too many possibilities. Economy of means can be a positive aspect in the interpretation of this music. It's like painting – if painters make use of too rich a palette, it doesn't necessarily help them represent the wonder they have chosen to depict. On the contrary, with too many possibilities, they may miss the essential.

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But is it harder for you to maintain an audience's interest with the Goldbergs because of the limited colour palette of the harpsichord?

It's true that the public is more familiar with the piano. But that is a great advantage for harpsichordists! It is easier to capture the attention of listeners with a sound that is foreign to them than one that is so familiar. Despite all the respect that I have for pianists and for the piano, this instrument today has become such a part of our lives – we hear it in hotel lobbies, airports, restaurants. It's our luck that the harpsichord isn't so omnipresent!

The Goldbergs can last for more than an hour, and each of the 30 variations has two repeats built into it. Lots of artists leave some or all of them out? Do you?

This work should be played with all the repeats. It is its equilibrium. However, the equilibrium of a concert can prove to be a little different according to the place, the instrument and the perception of the audience. I start with the principle that I will play all the repeats, but I sometimes leave some out here and there. I always regret it afterwards.

The piece begins with a simple aria, which is then followed by 30 increasingly virtuosic variations. Then Bach calls for the simple aria to be played again at the end. What do you think is the significance of that return? Do you play it differently at the end than at the beginning?

It's very significant: It's a voyage that ends with Bach asking us to evoke again the memory of the departure. It's a very important idea for Bach, very subtle, almost imperceptible. It's often linked to the departure of a beloved one, to death, or to an uncertain return. It's obvious that after such a voyage, one plays the aria differently, better than at the beginning.

The variations are all so different. Glenn Gould once observed that the trick in playing the Goldbergs is in not making them sound like 30 different pieces. How do you maintain unity in such a disparate group of pieces?

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Playing by memory helps a great deal. You have to let the voyage proceed as it will, live it fully without wanting to control it. There are things about the piece that one never masters, even if you wish it otherwise.

Does your interpretation of the piece change from night to night, or has it changed over time?

It's always a different voyage. Year after year, always more intense. With this piece there is the eternal problem of familiar works. You have to learn how to forget them in order to better understand them. This takes a long time: I have played this work for more than 10 years. The voyages and the work will never end.

What reaction would you like from the audience at the end of this journey?

Silence. After this work, I hate applause.

Benjamin Alard performs the Bach Goldberg Variations in Toronto from March 31 to April 3 at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre and April 5 at George Weston Recital Hall (tafelmusik.org).

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