Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Music Transcribed for Piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan
Symphony No. 39 in E flat, K. 453: Minuet [4:55]
Thamos, King of Egypt, K. 345: ‘Ne pulvis et cinis superbe’ [7:27]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550: Minuet [4:39]
String Quartet in A, K. 464: Andante [13:44]
Piano Concerto No. 30 in D minor, K. 466 [37:00]
José Raúl López (piano)
rec. 2013/14, Concert Hall of the Nicole and Herbert Wertheim Performing Arts Center, Florida International University, Miami, USA

Charles-Valentin Alkan was a formidable pianist and composer of some of the hardest, biggest pieces in the piano repertory. But he was also a transcriber of other composers’ work, and an admirer of the classical era, two traits displayed on this excellent new release. Pianist José Raúl López is beginning a series of Alkan’s complete transcriptions, and writing his own informative booklet essays, for Toccata. This Mozart album suggests it will be a series worth hearing.

Alkan is mostly a faithful interpreter. For technical details, you can consult the booklet, where López frequently goes bar-by-bar in his explanations. Here, it’s enough to say that Alkan used the full range of the Brahms/Liszt-era piano, unlike earlier transcribers like Hummel, who were limited by the ranges and actions of earlier instruments. I’m a fan of early pianos, but the later keyboards are much better able to mimic the voice of a full symphony orchestra, as you can hear in the two symphony minuets, each of which sounds very solid and full in transcription.

The string quartet transcription, a slow movement and one that originally only involved four instruments, is a big success. More problematic, and therefore more interesting to discuss, is the Piano Concerto No. 20. Here Alkan runs into the problem that, in a big concerto first movement, you have two expositions, one with soloist and one without. There’s not much of a way around this, except to play up the differentiations the second time around. The beginning of the finale sounds repetitive because of the same problem.

But Alkan successfully avoids the other problem I expected, which is the difference between solo piano and orchestral passages. Nowhere in the transcription will you say, “Ah, I can tell this was originally a solo passage.” The piano’s voice is seamless, with Alkan and López handling transitions naturally. Aside from the repetition, it does sound like a really big sonata rather than a Frankenstein piano-monster.

Having said that, there are two very big deviations from the original: Alkan’s own mammoth cadenzas in the outer movements. And I do mean mammoth; the first cadenza is 79 bars long. If you are busy reading or doing housework and miss the cadenza’s start, you’ll definitely notice when it suddenly transforms into the Jupiter Symphony! And the finale’s solo weaves in quotes from both of the previous movements.

A lot of the appeal of this CD is the performance by López, who coincidentally or not is an excellent Mozartian. He plays with authority and grace, and he relishes in the virtuosic challenges of Alkan’s transcription while still speaking in Mozart’s voice. This series is in good hands going forward, especially since most of Alkan’s transcriptions are of even earlier composers like Bach, Handel, and Marcello. Recorded sound is very close-up, but you still get an idea of the music’s color. The booklet, as mentioned, goes into considerable detail, though it helps if you have some technical musical background. And there’s also a picture of López with his two very handsome pet dogs. I’ll be looking forward to more releases in this series, and if you like Mozart, Alkan, or piano music, you should be excited, too.

Brian Reinhart
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