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,
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.