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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Le Festin díEsope Etude Op. 39 No. 12 [9:08]
Saltarelle Op. 23 [3:10]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Venezia e Napoli from Années de pélerinage [18:13]
Transcendental Etude No. 11 [9:34]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet Op. 75 [34:39]
Igor Roma (piano)
rec. 13-14 June 2001, Het Cenakel, Tilburg, Netherlands
CHALLENGE CC 72154 [74:14]


The booklet contains no information on the artist, but he does have a website, from which I was able to glean that he was born in 1969, a Swiss-born Italian, who pursued studies at Vicenza Conservatory. He was the winner of the Franz Liszt competition in Utrecht in 1996. This appears to be his first disc, in spite of winning awards for over ten years now.

Regarding the music, we have great riches here ó beginning with the not-oft-recorded Le Festin díEsope. The story behind the name of this Alkan piece is quite enjoyable. Aesop, a servant, is told to make a feast for his master. Aesop does so, with each of the dishes on both nights being variations based on one meat: ox tongue. The piece mirrors that banquet in being written as 24 variations on a theme. The language of animals shows up from time to time in the piece to further the Aesop analogy: a lion, a dog, and so forth. This piece was first recorded by Raymond Lewenthal and then, to my knowledge once afterwards by the venerable Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion (CDA66794). The Lewenthal has been released on CD in a set on Elan records six years ago, but Iíve not been able to listen to compare [see footnote]. What we have here with the Roma performance of the Alkan is first-rate playing and recording quality. The tempi are similar (9:08 compared to Hamelinís 8:40), and the performances of both are formidable in their own right. I must say I rather prefer this performance over Hamelinís. It has more snap and I prefer Romaís voicing of the chords. Roma simply does an amazing job. Even for those who may prefer Hamelin, they no doubt will agree that it is good to see additional performances of this work.

Regarding the Liszt, the award mentioned above, as well as the recording here, shows that he is no slouch in the Liszt department. The Gondoliera of the Années de pélerinage is charmingly, effortlessly played. The Canzone is a piece of tension, setting the air of expectation leading into the Tarantella; the rendition is distinct, with the lyrical episode in the middle meltingly played. For my preferred performance of the Transcendental etudes, I turn to Jorge Bolet, with whose version I am most familiar. Much time has passed between that recording and this one, and with Roma the sound naturally is more immediate and intimate. Romaís interpretation is more forceful, with more of a sense of attack in the building passages that fall away back into the nocturnal quiet of the piece. In these moments, I still prefer Bolet, who to these ears better maintains a sense of the languid evening harmonies that are referred to in this specific etudeís title. Still, though, this is beautifully played.

And now to the Prokofiev. My favourite interpreter here is Yekaterina Ervy-Novitskaya ó to be sure a bit off the beaten path, but her angularity and willingness to dive into the aggressiveness of Prokofievís music provided a wonderful surprise finish to the 20-volume Russian Piano School set released by BMG-Melodiya back in 1996. In comparison, Romaís approach here is softer from the beginning, not as staccato, but well-defined and with muscle. Roma betters Ervy-Novitskaya in the quieter, more lyrical moments, for example in Romeo and Juliet before Parting and the Young Juliet sections of the suite. His softer edge to the music adds to the wistfulness of the lyrical passage that forms the centre of Young Juliet, and the more tragic closing thirty seconds.

Well-played and well recorded. I recommend this disc overall, and especially for the wonderful performance of the Alkan pieces, which truly dazzle. To these ears, this first disc has been too long in coming, and I hope that subsequent discs will not be so long in making an appearance.

David Blomenberg



The Lewenthal was actually reissued by BMG-RCA in a series called High Performance in 1999, an Alkan disc also including the Barcarolle, Quasi-Faust and Symphonie, with Liszt's Hexameron as encore - all stunningly played.

Martin Walker

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