Morhange - he changed it to Alkan, his father’s first name -
was destined for great things. A child prodigy, he entered the
Paris Conservatoire at six, and his Op. 1 was written when he
was just 14. As a young man ‘the celebrated Alkan’ was popular
with Paris’s salon set, rubbing shoulders with the likes of
Victor Hugo, George Sand, Chopin and Liszt, but he withdrew
from public performance in 1849, only reappearing briefly to
play at the Erard showrooms.
Alkan was certainly
one of the great virtuoso pianist-composers and his keyboard
works must be among the most difficult ever written - even Liszt
admitted as much. But this ‘Berlioz of the piano’ disappeared
from the repertoire until fairly recently, when some of the
most accomplished pianists – Hamelin among them – brought the
music back into the public domain. Hamelin has already recorded
some Alkan as part of his ongoing partnership with Hyperion
(CDA66794, 67218). Indeed, the company must be commended for
their single-minded pursuit of the more obscure keyboard repertoire
(witness their multi-volume Romantic Piano Concerto series).
This new disc comes
freighted with all sorts of awards and commendations and it’s
not difficult to see or, more accurately, hear why. This
is fiendishly complex music and few pianists could ever hope
to tackle it with any success. It’s a measure of Hamelin’s technical
and interpretive skills that he seems to dash off the 49-minute
Concerto without breaking into a sweat. Thankfully there is
none of that intrusive, mannered pianism that, for me at least,
mars the playing of other ‘star’ players.
In the first movement
of the Concerto – Studies 8-10 of the Douze études dans tous
les tons mineurs of 1857 – Hamelin seamlessly modulates
from passages of white-hot intensity (often marked ‘tutti’)
to cool oases of quiet lyricism (usually marked ‘solo’) in a
way that is simply astonishing. The Hyperion engineers must
take some of the credit for the success of this performance;
I have long admired the balance they achieve between fine detail
on the one hand and weight and warmth on the other. Here the
cascades of sound – especially in the upper reaches of the keyboard
– are captured with crystalline clarity, while the dense, colliding
harmonies in the bass are equally well conveyed.
The Adagio finds
Alkan in one of those oases, resting after the rigours of the
Allegro. Hamelin’s playing is as introspective as the music
will allow, with occasional flashes of bravura writing. He judges
the contrasting moods superbly, never allowing the big tunes
to dominate or the quieter passages to meander or sound rhetorical.
Indeed, Hamelin seems acutely aware of the music’s overall shape
and competing inner voices, revealing the latter in a disarming
and unselfconscious way.
final movement may be something of a misnomer, but Hamelin is
certainly up to its manic moments. Even the strange, fragmented
passages sound all of a piece, clear and cogent, while at its
most febrile his playing must surely threaten the piano. Could
those colossal chords for the left hand ever have sounded more
powerful, drenched as they are by those torrents in the right?
Again Hamelin has the knack of tumbling from the millrace into
quieter pools without pausing for breath. And even though virtuoso
writing like this can so easily become a case of piling Ossa
on Pelion, he manages to pull off the huge finale with great
skill (and good taste).. In a concert this display would surely
have the audience on their feet, abetting an encore.
If that has you gasping
in disbelief – or the neighbours banging on the wall – the other
pieces should calm things down a bit. Alkan wrote four volumes
of chants, Opp. 38 (two books), 65 and 67, using Mendelssohn’s
Songs without words as his model. Starting with the sparkling
little Vivante it’s clear we are in a different, more intimate,
acoustic (London’s Henry Wood Hall). Once again the piano sound
is beautifully judged, especially in the miniature Esprits
follets (‘Goblins’) which scampers past in just over a minute
and a half.
Outwardly the Canon
finds Alkan in a more formal mood, yet still he adds those subversive
harmonic and melodic flourishes that bewitch the senses. The
Tempo giusto has something of Liszt’s pioneering Études d'exécution
it, although Alkan’s colour palette is even more exciting and
varied. And then there’s that prescient passage at 3:00, which
sounds remarkably like jazz.
The more declamatory
Horace et Lydie (supposedly based on a Horatian ode) harks back
to the Concerto in terms of weight but Hamelin still manages
to find a degree of delicacy at the outset. In the final Barcarolle,
especially, his playing has a gentle charm, dreamy yet without
ever losing that all-important sense of focus and clarity –
a remarkable achievement.
Not music one would
listen to very often, perhaps, except to remind one of how a
well-recorded piano should sound or how self-conscious
and mannered some rival pianists sound in such repertoire. Jeremy
Nicholas’s liner-notes are clear and informative but regrettably
he repeats the apocryphal stories about the Le Ménéstrel
obituary and Alkan’s supposed death under a falling book case,
both since disproved. But rather than ransack the cupboard for
any more superlatives I would simply urge you to go out and
buy this disc at once.