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Charles-Henri Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Douze Études dans les Tons Mineurs Op. 39

Comme le vent (Like the wind) (A minor) [5:30]
En Rythme Molossique (In Molossian Rhythm) (D Minor) [8:44]
Scherzo Diabolico (G minor) [4:30]
Allegro (C minor) [10:37]
Marche Funèbre (F minor) [6:53]
Menuet (B-flat minor) [5:41]
Finale (E-flat minor) [4:44]
Allegro Assai (G-sharp minor) [30:48]
Adagio (C-sharp minor) [11:51]
Allegro alla Barbaresca (F-sharp minor) [11:03]
Ouverture (B minor) [15:49]
Le Festin d’Esope (Aesop’s Banquet) (E minor) [9:50]
Stephanie McCallum (piano)
rec. 28 July 2004 (4-7); 11 February 2005 (1-3); 6 October 2005 (8-10); 12 December 2005 (11); 6 December 1999 (12), Eugene Goossens Hall of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, Sydney. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 4765335 [46:44 + 79:31]



First, we need to get the ‘Guinness Book of World Records” aspect out of the way. With this recording Stephanie McCallum becomes the first person in the world to record the complete Alkan Études Opp. 35 and 39, having recorded the Op. 35 major-key études in 1995. Secondly, it must be said that all the descriptors usually applied to Alkan’s music: virtuosic, formidable, super-human - could as easily be applied to Ms. McCallum’s performances on these discs. Thirdly, like Liszt’s Transcendental Études, the Alkan études can be listened to in part, but yield new emotional and structural values when listened to as a whole.
 
Stephanie McCallum has long been known as an exponent of Liszt and Alkan, as well as of contemporary music. Indeed, she has recorded some of the Op. 39 before. But in this set she not only demonstrates the supernal technique necessary for Alkan but also an over-arching sense of the entirety of the twelve études. In addition she demonstrates an attention to detail within each piece that enables one to explore aspects of Alkan not usually thought of amidst all the bravura.
 
Alkan’s études are frequently considered his masterpiece. Certainly they represent both  a peak of pianistic difficulty at the same time as encompassing Alkan’s largest structures - four of them (nos. 4-7)  comprise a full-scale symphony while nos. 8-10 represent a complete fifty-five minute piano concerto. Both these works are justly famous for their differentiations among “instruments” in the piano writing. The Concerto is followed by an overture and a set of twenty-four variations on an original theme while a true étude (no. 1) is followed by a study in rhythm and a scherzo.
 
I called the first étude (Comme le vent) a true étude because it is exactly that - a study in fingering at the same time that it excellently portrays various wind effects. Ms. McCallum not only negotiates the technical demands with complete assurance, but also ensures that all that virtuosity does not cloud innate musical values. The second étude (en rythme molossique) refers to a poetic form involving three syllables to a metrical foot. I find this the least interesting of the twelve pieces. The Scherzo diabolico is exactly that - showing a quality frequently associated with Alkan plus an inexorable quality worthy of La Damnation de Faust. Ms. McCallum brings out all these aspects brilliantly.
 
We now come to the four pieces comprising the symphony: Allegro, Funeral March, Minuet and Finale. The Allegro is full of delightful music, showing a Schumannesque side to Alkan’s personality. Ms. McCallum has just the requisite touch for this type of music as well as for the more symphonic aspects of the piece. Her cascades of notes leading to a dead stop of a finale are thrilling. The funeral march - perhaps this gave an idea to Taneyev for his piano concerto - is slightly jaunty with a more normal, contrasting second theme. Ms. McCallum keeps the various melodic lines distinct in spite of the large groups of notes she has to play. Given a jaunty funeral march, a frenetic minuet is perhaps not too surprising. However, in the contrasting trio we return to more normal territory, although I felt the pianist did not manage this transition well. The Finale continues the restless feelings of the previous movement: a rondo-form (more or less) eventually leading  back to Schumannesque elements. This is followed by a brilliant finale that Ms. McCallum takes almost too fast, if that is possible, involving negotiating cascades of notes before a definitive ending to the entire Symphony.
 
If the Symphony is compact in form and clear in harmony the Concerto (8-10) is very long, rather dense, and relies more upon thematic differentiation, although its structure is equally clear-cut. The opening Allegro provides a lovely contrast of thematic material and the central Adagio is in many ways the highlight of the twelve études. Here the legato playing is beautiful and precise - Ms. McCallum demonstrates her great knowledge of Alkan’s music with her phrasing and sense of dynamics. The final Allegro Barbaresco again shows the composer’s sense of humour although this gives way to a whirlwind of notes requiring the pianist to range all over the keyboard. Ms. McCallum ably dispatches these while not forgetting the overall sense of the movement.
 
After the excitement of the Concerto the Overture is something of a letdown although the soloist is in even more control of the glissandi and roulades than was evidenced in the last movement of No. 10. Alkan’s quick changes of mood and tempo are very evident here. The last étude is Aesop’s Feast with a theme and two dozen variations, each variation eight bars long. This is one of Alkan’s best-known works and one that requires a great variety of techniques in a comparatively small space of time. One should mention Ms. McCallum’s playing of the tenth and sixteenth variations as especially noteworthy.
 
The recording quality on these discs is serviceable, but the sound could be both warmer and a little closer in, although this is only a small problem. While most of the Op. 39 études have been recoded individually several times and there have been two or three complete sets recorded, notably the 1976 Ronald Smith discs, Ms. McCallum’s version is the one to have. Her combination of  pianism, enthusiasm and completeness cannot be topped.
 
William Kreindler
 

 

 

 


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