Monday, February 18, 2008

Precocious Partitas

At the tender age of 23, French organist and harpsichordist Benjamin Alard has more music in his right pinky than I could aspire to in all my being. It is both humbling and inspiring. When genius is joined with artistry, amazing things result—as they did at a packed house concert yesterday afternoon.

We already know that Alard is on the "fast track" for success: he was the most recent first place winner at Bruges, a competition that awards first place only when true merit is demonstrated; the previous competition awarded only second place. It is not about playing all of the notes right, it really is about having something to say about the music. Alard has a great deal to say, and he doesn't waste it on trivial bonbons, he goes for the real meat.

Tall and lanky, Alard has the quiet intensity of a mystic. He doesn't carelessly dive into a work, but sits quietly in front of the keyboard as he first collects himself. He plays with supreme economy of motion and is modest when he acknowledges applause. I really get the feeling that it is all about the music with him. His technique is clean and secure; he is more likely to slow down a bit, rather than slop his way through a difficult passage. His command of harpsichord tone is as good as anyones'.

I was a bit concerned about his choice of program: three Partitas, numbers 1 (B flat major), 2 (C minor) and after an intermission, 4 (D major). The last time we had an all-Partita recital, the critic (a luxury we once had) left after 20 minutes, and deservedly so. It is a program with a lot of depth and variety, as each of the Partitas is a different "mix." Still, three Partitas can be heavy going. The selection and order was ideal. N° 1 is the lightest, full of charm, and an excellent "warm up." One of the first things I noted was that his tempi were spot-on for each movement. The Praeludium was full of grace and the Giga a playful flourish of hand-crossing

N° 2 in C minor is a complete shift in mood: serious and brooding. Alard played the Sinfonia with drama, not melodrama. He took the Allemande at the slowest tempo I have ever heard it played: not as extreme as Blandine Rannou has recorded for Rameau and Bach allemandes, but with just as perfect control. This partitia ends with a fiendishly tricky Capriccio, not a gigue, and Alard demonstrated both his secure technique under pressure and the clarity and control of the counterpoint.

Playing three partitas in one program with an intermission introduces a challenge of balance. In this case, saving the larger Partita N° 4 worked out quite well. This is an interesting one: although in a major key, it has the scope and seriousness of those in the minor keys. As with the other partitas, I was impressed with Alard's singing tone and command of articulation. His introduction of silence into the Sarabande was both bold and unique, at least in my experience. The closing Gigue must be one of the most difficult movement in all of the partitas; fortunately, Alard was not fading, but rather played with confidence and mastery. It was a brilliant conclusion.

Alard avoided playing an encore. I don't blame him: it was a full program, he must have been tired, and I think it would be a mistake to break the spell he wove around the three partitas. It was a thoroughly satisfying performance; basically, this is as good as it gets! Meanwhile, I have to wonder just how much more depth we can look forward to from this precocious artist: he already has more than musicians two and three times his age.