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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Complete Recueils de Chants - Volume 2
Recueil de Chants; Quatrième, Op.67 (c.1868) [22:30]: Cinquième, Op.70 (c.1872) [25:36]
Deux Nocturnes, Op.57 (1859) [9:57]
Deux Petites Pièces, Op.60 (1859) [9:48]
Désir Fantaisie (1844) [3:14]
Chapeau bas! Seconda fantasticheria (1872) [8:14]
Stephanie McCallum (piano)
rec. September and November 2012, Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0158 [79:19]

The second volume of Stephanie McCallum’s Alkan survey focuses on the fourth and fifth of his Recueil de Chants. In the first volume there were a few moments where I may have preferred an alternative performance but in these last books she is at her very best. Alkan’s six-piece books contain recurring structural and musical features but they are varied in such a way that interest never flags. The contrast between the prim and flowing rhetoric in the Neige et lave of the fourth book is beautifully delineated, and the noble hymnal second theme of the fifth piece is a product of the cultivation of tone colour and rhythmic vitality. Her ability to deal with the jagged, dogged off-beats is also not in doubt. So, too, the songful tristesse that marks the last of this book, a Barcarolle of disarming intimacy.
 
The opening pieces of each book are invariably fluent, flowing, lyrical and distinctive. He is not above cocking a leg when he feels inclined, and there’s a decidedly parodic piece in this last book, innocently entitled Allegro vivace. However it seems to parody military quick steps, reveille and drum, and ridicule the whole idea of a processional. There’s a relentless, unyielding quality to the penultimate piece, passionately terse, but the finale is a splendid recapitulation, full of typical Alkanesque extremes. The seedbed for all this was Mendelssohn, but the way in which Alkan draws the music toward his very personal sense of tone poetry is, as ever, both bewildering and bewitching.
 
Fortunately there’s yet more in this volume. The Nocturnes (1859) offer a study in contrasts, with the breadth of the Andantino capped by a fast-moving second piece. The Petites Pièces once again derive their potency from their strongly contrasted natures: the first is outsize, playful, witty and the second tender and refined. Désir is a fantasy, brief, it’s true, but still full of lyric warmth. The deliciously named last piece is Chapeau bas! Seconda fantasticheria. Hats off, maybe, but the feel of this eight-minute fiesta of fun is dynamism and sheer elation.
 
Once again Stephanie McCallum is fully inside the music – the booklet notes are outstanding, by the way – and she deserves plaudits for her acutely perceptive dedication to the Alkan cause.
 
Jonathan Woolf