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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Première Elégie S.130 (1874) [6:42]
Romance oubliée S.132 (1880) [3:36]
La lugubre gondole S.134 (1882-5) [9:34]
Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth S.382 (c.1883) [5:46]
Deuxième Elegie S131 (1877) [5:55]
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Sonate de concert op. 47 (1857) [33:26]
Emmanuelle Bertrand (cello); Pascal Amoyel (piano)
rec. 2014
HARMONIA MUNDI HMA1951758 [65:59]

From Liszt and Alkan – both infamous for their complex, rhapsodic ingenuity – one would expect a rather bombastic affair. In fact we are treated to soberingly elemental sounds under the deft musicianship of Bertrand and Amoyel. These late works by Liszt and Alkan's sonorous sonata unveil a more spiritually contemplative face. They reflect the sort of purified expression, innermost lyricism and reticence generally favoured for such mystical chamber music experimentation. This is coupled with a tendency to counter the tendency towards cliché-ed entertainment music with a heady smack of eloquence and ornamentation.

With an admixture of technical precision, brio and steady resonance, French cellist Bertrand leaves us awash in colour and texture, ranging from Berlioz-like fortitude in Alkan's Sonate to Debussy-like transparency in Liszt's Troisième Elegie. His style fits comfortably with Amoyel's improvisational spark and attentive backdrop. As a duo, Bertrand and Amoyel have also recorded Bloch, Strauss, Grieg, Saint-Saens and Olivier Greif together.

Producing three effusive and complex themes, the first movement of Alkan's Sonate de concert distils variety and ambiguity into a concentrated tonic of musical exposition. Like Beethoven's late string quartets it unravels each intertwined idea through modulation and development. The maturity in this piece can be evinced through its symphonic scope and the move away from the 'style brillant' of salon music. Bertrand caps the second movement by trawling the depths of the cello's C string and by tenaciously exploring the instrument's earthy underbelly. Contrasting with the crisp veracity and almost melodramatic fullness of the third movement there are moments of quietude and contemplation in an otherwise rambunctious yet exquisitely mystical work. The end of the third movement is particularly radiant and is lit by Amoyel's tone which is simultaneously limpid and lyrical. For the most part he successfully tames the Alkan spirit so as to complement rather than clash with the rather more tender cello tones.

Liszt's Première, Deuxième and Troisième Elégies, composed in 1874, 1877 and 1883 respectively, are fragments of dejection and ebullience varied by the phantom light of despair. Aglow with the diaphanous and the ephemeral, the pizzicato section of the Première Elégie (originally entitled 'lullaby in the grave' in memory of Countess Nesselrode) coincides exquisitely with the resplendent luminosity of the main theme. To quote S. T. Coleridge:-

Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,
And sent my soul abroad,
Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live! (‘Dejection an Ode’)

Dedicated to Lina Ramann (a biographer of Liszt and piano teacher) in gratitude for a favourable article she penned, the Deuxième Elégie is flowery and effervescent. Through determined precision and direction this duo strip away Liszt's frivolity to produce a neatly trimmed whole. Undoubtedly, the most arresting piece is La lugubre gondole — otherwise known as the Troisième Elégie. Played with exactitude and conveying a concentrated strand of anguish and languor, this Wagnerian piece is utterly transfixing. Originally composed for piano in 1882, Liszt promptly made this sombre arrangement in the following year. Reminiscent of Wagner's unending melodies and unresolved sevenths, this piece recalls the prelude to Tristan und Isolde as it steadily develops into an irresistibly unremitting romanticism. Bertrand's performances of Liszt's Romance oubliée and Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth bemoan nostalgia and solitude whilst allowing scope for a sense of a journey's progression and chivalric legend. Flowing melodies are supported by Amoyel's unwavering constancy in this carefully meditated recording.

Though the piano sometimes seems a little too forward in the Alkan, this recording is generally of a high quality. Ultimately, this is a refreshing collection where the virtuosity of composers and performers is met with disarming humility. Another recording of the Liszt pieces which is well worth listening to is that by Stephen Isserlis and Stephen Hough: 1995, Forgotten Romance, RCA 09026 68290 2. This earlier recording also contains sonatas by Rubinstein and Grieg.

Lucy Jeffery