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Charles Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Concerto pour piano seul, in G sharp minor (Op. 39 nos. 8, 9, 10) (1857) [51:09]
Comme le vent, Prestissimamente, in A minor, (Op. 39 No. 1) (1857) [4:41]
En rythme molossique, Risoluto, in D minor (Op. 39 No. 2) (1857) [8:27]
Scherzo diabolico, Prestissimo, in G minor (Op. 39 No 3) (1857) [4:44]
Vincenzo Maltempo (piano)
rec. June 2013, Studio Musicanti, Rome

Charles Valentin Alkan was a French composer and virtuoso pianist who lived and worked alongside Chopin and Liszt. He is said to have supported his compositional life by the patronage of Russian aristocratic ladies who, as Isidore Philipp describes, were ‘des dames très parfumées et froufroutantes’. Alluding to his solitary character and enigmatic style, Liszt is reported to have commented to the Danish pianist Fritz Hartvigson that ‘Alkan possessed the finest technique he had ever known, but preferred the life of a recluse.’ Being such an intriguingly mysterious character, Alkan is described in contrasting lights. For instance, Jack Gibbons describes Alkan as an ‘intelligent, lively, humorous and warm person — all characteristics which feature strongly in his music — whose only crime seems to have been having a vivid imagination, and whose occasional eccentricities […] stemmed mainly from his hypersensitive nature.’ On the other hand, Hugh Macdonald suggests that ‘Alkan was a man of profoundly conservative ideas, whose lifestyle, manner of dress, and belief in the traditions of historic music, set him apart from other musicians and the world at large.’ Thus, interpreting both the man and the music is a convoluted task which requires consideration of both the influences and instinctual characteristics to be found in his 12 Etudes dans tous les tons mineurs Op. 39.
Likeness to Berlioz is often cited; Hans von Bülow called him ‘the Berlioz of the piano’, while Schumann, in criticising the Op. 15 Romances, claimed that Alkan merely ‘imitated Berlioz on the piano’. Alkan himself said, in no uncertain terms, that Wagner ‘is not a musician, he is a disease’. Like Chopin, Alkan’s musical compositions are centred almost exclusively on the piano; however, unlike Chopin and Liszt, Alkan was not entirely concerned with developing harmonic idiom. More telling of Alkan’s style and ambition perhaps are his admirers. Rubinstein, Franck and Busoni appreciated Alkan for the gargantuan range of expression he demanded through his compositions and as a performer of technical prowess.
Alkan’s Concerto pour piano seul, in G sharp minor (Op. 39 nos. 8, 9, 10) is an immense work. It consists of 120 pages and takes over 50 minutes to perform. To get a sense of scale, the first movement alone has more bars than the entire Hammerklavier Sonata by Beethoven. A piece of layered textures and harmonies, which conjure the sound of an entire orchestra, this work is challenging both physically and mentally for any performer. However, the brilliant Vincenzo Maltempo tackles this taxing work with elegance, charm and vigour. Maltempo takes on this piece with improvisational spontaneity and emotive sincerity - one could say the cornerstones of Alkan’s style. With a host of technical difficulties amidst a subtly interrelated phrasing, only a performer with equal quantities of grit, dare and talent can perform such a work. This contains arpeggios, octave runs, scales, leaps, grace notes, alternating hands, swiftly changing block chord motifs, tremolos and 4-5 trills with the melody played on the same hand. Undeniably this is a piece that excites the listener. With all of this showiness, it is easy to imagine oneself feeling somewhat emotively distanced, however, Maltempo’s rendition is just as tender as it is tumultuous. Both the thought-provoking Adagio and glittering (even oriental sounding) Allegretto alla barabaresca are magisterially played.
The remaining three pieces are comparatively lighter and much shorter works. Comme le vent (No. 1) is a bravura study which is here performed with dumbfounding alacrity. En rythme molossique (No. 2) consists of a carefully crafted interplay of forms which diverge from melodic outpours to extraordinary percussive hammerings. Maltempo is forceful but not stubborn, managing to uphold both the structure and imagination of the piece. Finishing with Alkan’s Scherzo diabolico (No. 3), Maltempo is put to the test with Alkan’s frequent use of leaps, noticeably the ‘Neapolitan sixth’. With a central section of mighty chords, the fullness of sound created by Maltempo who plays with conviction and magnanimity is enthralling and here excellently captured. Returning to the first section, but playing pianissimo, the listener encounters Alkan’s shocking doublings. These make for a stirring and excitingly shifting experience. Suggestive of Alkan’s unpredictable personality, Maltempo grapples with the work’s changeable nature and complexity. In short, these pieces are brilliantly executed, devoid of crass showmanship, but replete with virtuosic display. Alkan’s music is fraught and oftentimes riven with battling emotions.

Lucy Jeffery
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf