for Solo Piano, Op. 39 Nos. 4-7. Salut, cendre du pauvre! Op.
45. Alleluia. Super flumina Babylonis, Op. 52. Souvenirs:
Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathÈtique, Op. 15.
Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin, pianist
HYPERION CDA 67218 (F) (DDD) TT: 74:08
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Charles-Valentin Alkan (born Charles-Valentine Morhange -- he and his brothers used their father's first name, Alkan, as their last) was a prominent virtuoso pianist during his time. Born in Paris November 30, 1813 (the same year as Verdi and Wagner), he died March 29, 1888 reportedly after being crushed by a falling bookcase as he was reaching for a copy of the Talmud, although the cause of his demise is now being disputed. When only six he was accepted by the Paris Conservatory where he excelled in organ as well as piano. After graduation he was acclaimed in high society circles and gave many concerts for aristocratic audiences. Chopin, Liszt and Victor Hugo were among his friends early in his career. Immersed in study of the Bible and the Talmud, and horrified by the musical commonplace, he soon abandoned the concert stage, became reclusive and concentrated on composing. Writing almost exclusively for the piano, his major works are 25 PrÈludes, Twelve Etudes on Major Keys, Twelve Etudes on Minor Keys, the Grande Sonata, Sonatine, and forty-eight Esquisses.
To say his music is difficult to perform is an understatement. Raymond Lewenthal, Ronald Smith and John Ogden made pioneering recordings; now the leading advocate is Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin who already has made magnificent recordings of the Concerto for Solo Piano (Music & Arts CD 724), Grande Sonate Les Quatre Ages, Op. 33, the Sonatine, Op. 61, Le Festin d'Espope, Op. 39 No. 12 and Barcarolle, Op. 65 No. 6 (Hyperion CDA 66794), with more Alkan included on another CD in the form of Three Etudes, Op. 76 and his transcription for solo piano of the first movement of Beethoven's Concerto No. 3, with its quite incredible cadenza (Hyperion CDA 66765). Now we have a new Alkan disk from Hyperion, containing the Symphony for Solo Piano, Salut, cendre du pauvre! Op. 45, Alleluia, Op. 25, Super flumina Babylonis, Op. 52 and Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathÈtique (Aime-moi, Le vent, Morte). The "symphony" actually consists of Etudes 4 through 7 of the Twelve Etudes on Minor Keys (the Concerto for Solo Piano consists of the first three Etudes). Both are massive, huge-scale works, particularly the former, with staggering technical obstacles for the performer. Hamelin makes light of this music's diabolical tasks for the performer, yet always displays the limpid tone and taste inherent in his playing. Alkan's music is an acquired taste for many; you will not find it more effectively presented elsewhere.
The other new Hyperion issue offers Hamelin in no less than twenty "miniatures," if you wish to call them that; Beecham called them "lollipops" at the end of orchestral concerts, the sort of thing that perhaps works best as an encore. Many of these are receiving their premiere recordings; there's enough contrast in the tracking to permit extended listening. Lots of delights here (complete listing above), particularly Hamelin's wrist-breaking etude on the Paganini-Liszt La Campanella, and his own Etude No. 6 based on sonatas of Scarlatti. He also plays Blumenfeld's Etude for the Left Hand with remarkable dexterity and taste, although not eclipsing either of Simon Barere's staggering recordings. Michalowski's Etude after Chopin's Impromptu No. 1 is a reminder of the pianist's extraordinary recording of the Chopin-Godowski Etudes. Also we have a short work by Emile-Robert Blanchet described in Jeremy Nicholas' fine program notes as sounding like Debussy, actually more like Rachmaninoff in an idyllic mood. Also intriguing is a clumping big-scale Gigue by LouriÈ, a waltz by Massenet that doesn't sound like Massenet and the program ends with a jazzy Toccatina by Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937). This is a superb collection stunningly played with excellent sound from Tony Faulkner.
R.E.B. (Nov. 2001)