> Charles-Valentin Alkan - Esquisses [DB]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Esquisses Op.63 (1861)
Laurent Martin, piano
Recorded in Heidelberg in 1990 DDD Stereo
NAXOS 8.555496 [74:29]


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This remarkable disc was originally issued in 1992 on the full price Marco Polo label. At its new price it becomes an essential purchase. A first class recording by a first class pianist of extraordinarily interesting music.

Before starting the detailed eulogy, a word about the recording. I have already noted its excellent quality but listeners should be warned that the piano is startlingly close and seems to sit exactly across the speakers. Not between - across. The pianist can be heard breathing from the left-hand channel and the treble strings too can be heard from that direction. The length of the concert grand clearly stretches across to the right-hand channel. The instrument is thus as long as your speakers are wide. You sit a few feet back from the open piano lid. Terrifyingly realistic!

Fortunately, Laurent Martin, a French pianist with a special interest in this repertoire, is up to the demands both of the microphone and the fiercer demands of Charles-Valentin Alkan. And what demands they are. The Esquisses Op.63 last nearly 75 minutes and whilst they may not make the sustained calls on virtuosity of the huge Symphony for solo piano or Concerto for solo piano that are contained within the innocently named set of twelve Études Op.39, they do demand enormous powers of characterisation. There are forty eight of these so called sketches, plus a postlude called Laus Deo making forty nine tracks in all. The longest piece is the postlude at just over 4 minutes, the shortest pieces last well under a minute.

What could be more dull than listening to forty-nine short movements by a renownedly eccentric romantic Frenchman? Well, probably many activities would be more dull, because this is an enthralling disc and I, for one, ended up listening to all of them in one go. Not for a moment did I get bored, and I found myself frequently reaching for the microscopic notes, plus a magnifying glass (no joke) to find out what on earth Alkan was depicting this time. Amongst a long list of notable portrayals are the philosophers Heraclytus and Democritus, who are heard conversing, or perhaps arguing. Heraclytus is vindicated, for this music is ever changing, and at amazing speed. Also striking are Increpatio which thumps and crashes for most of its minute-and-a-half, Ressouvenir which hypnotises the ear, Les diablotins, a weird composition of tone clusters that had me thinking momentarily of Nancarrow, and Pseudo-Naïveté which wanders prettily but then stops without warning. Also present are several movements entitled Toccata, Toccatina, Scherzetto and Scherzettino, which show the amazing virtuoso writing with which we associate the Alkan of the Grande Sonate: Les Quatres Âges.

Keith Andersonís notes are excellent and very necessary if, like me, youíve not come across these particular pieces before. Naxos continues to fly the flag for thorough documentation which should put practically all the competition to shame, and they still find time to provide a great Camille Pissarro on the front cover. Brilliant!

Dave Billinge

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