Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Complete Piano Duos and Duets
Benedictus op.54 (transcr. Roger SMALLEY, for two pianos) [8:15]
Impromptu on the Lutheran Chorale 'Ein' Feste Burg ist Unser Gott' op.69 (transcr. Roger SMALLEY, for two pianos) [13:07]
Saltarelle for piano duet, op.47 [6:54]
Fantasy on Mozart's Don Giovanni for piano 4 hands, op.26 [12:52]
3 Marches for piano duet, op.40 [20:32]
Bombardo-Carillon for piano duet [5:45]
Finale for piano duet, op.17 [2:59]
Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow (piano(s))
rec. St John the Baptist, Alkborough, England, October 2008 [opp.54; 69] and November 2009. DDD
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 070 [70:36]
This CD adds further weight to the already substantial recorded evidence for Charles-Valentin Alkan's parity with Liszt. These are first recordings of his Saltarelle op.47, the Finale op.17 and both of Roger Smalley's transcriptions of pieces Alkan originally composed for the ill-starred pedal piano.
The Saltarelle op.47, amazingly once the finale of a cello sonata, briefly calls to mind the saltarella in Mendelssohn's Italian symphony, but at its relentless prestissimo tempo this is dancing in a hurricane! About 90 seconds from the end there is a short respite, which Alkan jokingly labels 'stanco' (Italian for 'tired'), before then requiring even more furious finger flight from the pianists.
The Three Marches op.40 are Alkan's longest work for these forces. Each piece contains elements of a fairly basic military march amplified by typically Alkanian effects and ideas. The first quotes Schubert's famous Marche Militaire; the second, in C minor and E flat major, features a high-pitched ticking followed by a keyboard tornado, and eventually a descent into parade-ground mayhem; the third, in B flat, is the least spectacular, but ends in an appropriately military flourish.
The Benedictus op.54 was published with the designation 'for pedal piano or piano three hands', but Smalley transcribed it for piano duo to deepen the sonorities. Despite the title, this is a restless, turbulent work, with a brief Chopinesque interlude before ending 'agnostically'. The oddly named Bombardo-Carillon is a mesmerising piece like nothing else, totally devoid of high notes. The brief but entertaining Finale op.17 is Alkan's earliest work for four hands. It is a military march of sorts - what this was intended as the finale to, if anything, is not clear.
The Impromptu on the Lutheran Chorale 'Ein' Feste Burg ist Unser Gott' op.69 was also written for pedal piano or piano three hands, and again Smalley has transcribed it for piano duo, if for no other reason than to make it humanly playable! Alkan's 'Impromptu' title is typically witty - this is an imposing, complex, astounding piece, the equal of Liszt, and offers a master-class in variation form. The theme is instantly recognisable from the opening bars as that of the final movement of Mendelssohn's Reformation symphony - or from Bach's Cantata BWV80 and elsewhere. There are four sections played as a single movement, each keeping the same metronome mark. The final fugue is mind-blowing in its energy and intensity as it swirls towards chromaticism.
As if that were not enough notes or insufficient speed, the Fantasy on Don Juan for piano 4 hands, op.26 almost succeeds in upstaging the Impromptu, right from the opening bar. This work may have been a message to Liszt of the "anything you can do" variety. Liszt had recently published his Reminiscences de Don Juan based on Mozart's opera, and cheekily Alkan even uses the same aria for his finale, the famous 'Finch' han dal vino'. Quite possibly, Alkan's is the greater work. There is a brief introduction, theme, five incredible variations and then the fittingly uproarious finale with what sounds like more notes in the final minute than in the whole of Mozart's opera!
Husband and wife team Goldstone & Clemmow have been performing now for over 25 years and have recorded nearly 40 CDs. Their intuitive understanding of and interaction with each other is matchless, as indeed it needs to be to master music with such phenomenal technical demands. To come through Alkan's Saltarelle, Impromptu and Fantasy unscathed is an almost superhuman feat.
As usual with Toccata, the booklet is a paragon of clarity and information, with an excellent essay on Alkan and these works by Malcolm MacDonald.
Imposing, complex and astounding.