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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Grande Sonate Op.33 “Les quatre âges” (The Four Ages) (1848) [38:10]
Symphony Op.39 Nos 4-7 (1857) [28:53]
Stefan Lindgren, piano
rec. 1992 (Sonata), 1998 (Symphony), Swedish Radio Stockholm
DAPHNE 1034 [67:05]
Experience Classicsonline

Charles-Valentin Alkan (né Morhange) is the great unknown of the French music. Friend and rival of Chopin and Liszt, he led an increasingly reclusive life, shunned publicity, and apparently did everything to remain in shadows. His compositional output consists mostly of solo piano music, including a Piano Concerto (three out of the gargantuan set of twelve Études op.39) and a Symphony (another four etudes from the same magnum opus). Many pieces combine dazzling technical virtuosity with innovative, even prophetic elements, which started being appreciated only lately.

Alkan’s Grande Sonate “The Four Ages” shows in its four movements a hero at 20, 30, 40 and 50 years old, respectively. The Twenties part is about as deep as a Czerny étude, but serves as a prelude to the following parts. The hero is depicted bursting with energy, which splutters in all directions, without a goal or a programme. Strong, arrogant, self-assured, he rushes through the life like a racing car.

In the second movement, “30 years, Quasi-Faust”, comes “the real thing”, the centre and heart of the sonata. It is somewhat Lisztian, and you’ll meet here all standard Faust ingredients - including Marguerite and Mephisto. Of the four movements, this one could be performed as a standalone composition. It stands out from the crowd; while others depict moods the Thirties have a story, with all the details in sharp focus. Could this be because Alkan was in his thirties when he wrote it?

After all this turmoil, the next movement furnishes well-deserved repose. It is entitled “Un heureux ménage” (A happy household), and the ménage is indeed happy. Not a single dark cloud crosses the skies. It could be the lazy mood of a Sunday morning, while the kids play quietly, probably in the other room. There is love, soft smiling and caressing. Liszt would likely put in more sugar and call it a “Consolation”. Alkan left it simple and poignant.

Do you remember, when you were 16, that someone 25 years old seemed to you almost antique? And then, when you attained 25, the 40 year old seemed similarly venerable? Maybe this explains the gloomy disposition of the last part of the sonata, devoted to the Fifties. You hear the heavy, tired steps of a sick old man. The subtitle is “Prométhée enchaîné” (Prometheus enchained) - does it mean the wish, but impossibility, of dying? There are many moments reminiscent of Beethoven’s last sonatas, but without their heavenly hope. Our hero is sunk in despair: where is his happy household (II) now? Was it only a temporary gift made real by some Devil’s contract? Maybe. The ending is gruesome and desolate.

Stefan Lindgren obviously has all the required virtuosity to perform this extremely demanding score. The Twenties sweep past in one wide stroke. Without concealing the hero’s shallowness, Lindgren still engages our sympathy for him. In the Thirties, the pianist is powerful when needed and tender when required. He grips the listener and carries him through the emotional waves. The eight-part fugue is luminous. In the third movement I would vote for a more spacious approach, more air to breathe. Lindgren here drives the music too fast; he does not allow it to relax completely. The last movement is also played rather faster than the prescribed Extremement lent (extremely slow). For comparison, Ronald Smith plays this movement in 12:05, while Lindgren does it in just 7:29! I can’t say that this decision was bad. While surely opposing the composer’s intention of “extremely slow”, it adds drama and some devilish effect, throwing a bridge to the second movement. Instead of being weary and inevitable, the Doom is now frightening: it’s a dark force that kills the hero, not old age. An interesting decision, anyway.

The Symphony, as was said, is actually four out of twelve etudes for piano solo, Op.39. The etudes populate the 12 minor keys; consequently all parts of the Symphony are in different keys (progressing in quarts: C - F - B flat - E flat). However, the whole structure is unified and balanced, and the Symphony is more coherent than the Piano Concerto. It also avoids the glaring banality of the Concerto’s finale.

The opening movement is wide and genuinely symphonic. We plunge headlong into the tormented, restless Allegro, like a soul trying to escape from nightmares. The melodies bring to mind Schumann and even Berlioz, though the pathos is closer to Beethoven’s sonatas than to the high Romantics: the music is more sober, economic, structured. The themes are memorable, the culminations passionate, and one starts wondering why this glorious music is not more popular. However, after a while you notice that every part of the Symphony is a bit one-faced. But, then, in the end, these are etudes, right? Or are they?

The second movement is a Marche Funèbre. However, the tempo is marked Andantino, and this is well observed by the pianist. As a result, we get a menacing dirge of Schubertian type. The musical means are stark and simple, yet Lindgren’s excellent control of intonation does not let our attention slip - not even for an instant.

Don’t place any belief in the name of the third movement, Menuet. This fiendish scherzo is as far from a minuet as any of Bruckner’s scherzos. No two phrases seem to have the same length. Everything is incongruous, angular, flying in different directions. It’s like manoeuvring through an asteroid field. There are glimpses of Chopinesque waltziness in more graceful moments, but they are just glimpses from behind the clouds. The middle section is an island of peace - the last one. The finale sounds like a real workout for fingers. “A tragic, wild ride, not to Hell but already in Hell”, as Raymond Lewenthal put it. This description is apt: we certainly have a wild ride, down and round, amid the dark flames. It is not too long, not too heavy, a fitting conclusion.

Quoting the liner notes by Tomas Löndahl, “Alkan’s own manner of playing the piano was clear and precise with a minimum of rubato”. This manner is clearly characteristic also of Stefan Lindberg. While faultlessly combining virtuosity with passion and lyricism, the pianist never indulges in over-emphasis or over-dramatizing the music. The comparison with Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion (CDA 67218) seems inevitable. Hamelin’s playing is magnificent as ever, and his approach is very different. He tweaks the buttons a lot. Alkan wanted tempo di minuetto in the third part? Forget about it and get all the dragons! Hamelin paints a more dramatic and probably more interesting picture. However, he seems to dig out more than the composer put inside; you decide whether you like it or not. Lindgren’s presentation is simpler, leaner, and less romantic. Maybe “accurate” is a good word. Tempo is strict, every note distinct, but somehow the effect of the music is still there. His filigree fingerwork in the finale, always sharp, almost creates the effect of Seurat’s pointillism. Combined with Lindgren’s strict management of tempo, this produces a sort of mechanical frenzy, which I don’t hear in Hamelin’s more free approach.

The recording is faithful, though it probably could be bettered. Sometimes the piano sounds two-dimensional, and some high notes, when played fortissimo, have an unpleasant ringing. This effect is rare. On the whole this is a good disc. Liner-notes in English and Swedish tell us about the composer, the works and the pianist.

Oleg Ledeniov 



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