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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Premier recueil de chants, Op.38 (1857) [19:28]
Deuxième recueil de chants, Op.38 (1857) [25:14]
Troisieme recueil de chants, Op.65 (c.1859) [19:01]
Une fusée: Introduction et Impromptu, Op.55 (1859) [7:31]
Stephanie McCallum (piano)
rec. February, May and July 2012, Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
TOCCATA TOCC 0157 [71:14]

Alkan’s Recueils de Chants are remarkable Mendelssohnian tone poems for piano. In this first edition of a complete series of the five books, Stephanie McCallum plays the first three, adding a work that is making its first appearance on CD, Une fuse, a delicious spinning song, arpeggiated and drenched in Mendelssohnian vibrancy and drama.
The early and mid-nineteenth century vogue for songlike piano pieces evolved largely because of the expressive advances in piano manufacture. Alkan was no less enamoured of this potential than his slightly younger contemporary Mendelssohn. These beautiful compositions follow defiantly in the footsteps of the older man with each six-piece set patterned after the Songs without Words. And yet though the lyricism is directly redolent of Mendelssohn most of the transitional passages are distinctively Alkanesque, though nowhere near as quirky as one may otherwise associate with him.
The first two books share the same opus number and year of composition. The opening of Book I is wondrously lyrical but could it be, in performance, just a touch more ‘vivement’ than here? That rather depends on how one judges the appropriate tempo. Certainly McCallum is a practised exponent of Alkan’s music and she has spent a number of years performing and recording it. She is alive to his affectionate Allegrettos and is always extremely effective - I would say at her most supremely stylish - in the third movement Chants (or Choeur or Canon). She deftly evokes the dog bark in that of Book I, and so too the delicate bell peals in the succeeding piece. The flowing agitation of the tensile fifth pieces of the sets is also finely conveyed.
The Second book opens with a harp evocation - a beautiful hymnal eclogue, though Alkan’s more obstinate side is evident in the Allegretto. He seems to reach back to earlier French composers in the Chant de guerre, a sometimes cartoonish picture, though one far removed from the Franco-German School of 1812 pianism, which tended to depict Napoleonic battles with the subtlety of a blunderbuss. Perhaps it’s me but I find McCallum’s performance of the Procession (No.4) more mordant than ‘candlelit’, as suggested in the notes.
The Third Book is again warmly and acutely performed. It is quite a long way, nevertheless, interpretatively speaking, from McCallum to Marc-André Hamelin in his recording of this Book on Hyperion CDA67569. Hamelin is very much the bristling virtuoso, an Alkan gunslinger to his fingertips. Thus he is fleet to the point of relentless in the Esprits follets, where Prestissimo really does mean Prestissimo. The Schumannesque Polonaise in tempo giusto is, in Hamelin’s hands, a dynamic March where in McCallum’s it is more leisurely. A test case is the piece called Horace et Lydie. Her Alkan punctuation is the more disjunctive, her stresses more pronounced, less avid; her rubati are also more evident. Hamelin is the more flowing, less willing to break the constant flux of Alkan’s ideas. How one responds is very much a matter of taste. With Hamelin, Alkan sounds more supercharged and more of a virtuoso vehicle. With McCallum he is more of the poet. And both positions are undoubtedly reflective of the two performers concerned.
With first class booklet notes and recording quality, this first release in the series can be warmly commended.
Jonathan Woolf