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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Concerto for Solo Piano Op 39
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)

Islamey
Mark Latimer, piano
Recorded Royal Northern College of Music November 1999 (Alkan) and Malvern December 1994 (Balakirev)
APR 5600 [56’15]

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Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano is one of the more monstrous challenges in the literature. At just under fifty minutes it requires virtuosity, stamina and surety of architectural design and whilst not without its advocates – Marc-André Hamelin foremost amongst the contemporary exponents (Music and Arts CD724) – its breathtaking difficulties are as viscerally alive now as ever they were. So Latimer enters dangerous and not uncrowded waters. In addition to Hamelin, Ogdon on Philips 456 913-2, Gibbons on ASV CDDCS227 and Ronald Smith on APR 7031 (another APR Alkan) provide strong competition. Whatever else may distinguish and differentiate each performance, one thing is abundantly and regrettably clear – none has as bad sound as this latest disc. In Latimer’s self-styled Apologia, part of his extensive notes – a mixture of intemperance and bluster – he touches on the limitations of sound quality but the promotion of this disc as the first live recording of Alkan’s Concerto means that, given the competition, performance and sound quality should be commensurately high. And regrettably they aren’t.

Recorded at the Royal Northern College of Music in November 1999 the acoustic is constricted and the sound of the piano is desperately unattractive with an airless clatter around it. Whatever flexibilities and subtleties Latimer brings to Alkan are constantly subverted by the woeful recording quality which makes this a very hard going listen. He certainly brings enormous weight to the first movement, torrential attacks and plenty of rubato but also some unrelated tempo adjustments that tend to make the movement more diffuse and conjectural than it should be. He is good in the moments of stasis in the middle of the movement but, again, they don’t emerge as properly integrated into the fabric of the score. There is a hectoring tone to much of the playing which is exacerbated by the discursive and fluctuating nature of Latimer’s playing. He has an undeniably big technique – slips are inevitable but not important in the context – and there is certainly nothing discreet or apologetic to his conclusion of the huge first movement. It is blistering. Elsewhere, in the adagio there is some interior and searching playing with much rhythmically emphatic pianism in the central core of the movement – strong, forceful chording and some animated scampering from 11’29 onwards – but it never quite seems to cohere. In the finale Latimer certainly takes the alla barbaresca marking at full value but he is more than somewhat unremitting and again the unflattering sound vitiates a lot of the pleasure from the performance. The final piece is Balakirev’s Islamey, a suitably finger busting discmate for the Alkan and recorded five years earlier.

Jonathan Woolf

 


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