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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Douze Etudes dans tous les tons majeurs Op. 35
Mark Viner (piano)
rec. 2016, Westvest Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands

Mark Viner is a winner of the Alkan-Zimmerman International Piano Competition in Athens. He is becoming increasingly well known for championing lesser known piano works, including those of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Alkan is one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of music. He was an awe-inspiring pianist himself, and is one of the few people whose presence in the audience made Liszt nervous about performing. He lived as a recluse for many years; he focused on composition and on translating the entire Bible from Syriac into French. Alkan’s piano works fell out of favour in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although Busoni and Petri were early champions of his music. In the second half of the 20th century his works increasingly came back into favour through the efforts of Ronald Smith and Raymond Lewenthal. More recently, his works have been championed by Hamelin, Mustonen, Osborne, Jack Gibbons and others. Alkan’s monumental Etudes dans les ton mineurs Op. 39 – seven of which comprise a symphony and a concerto for piano solo – is perhaps his best-known work. The companion set of etudes traversing all the major keys are less well known, although Bernard Ringeissen and Stephanie McCallum have both left recordings. They remind me more of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies than the two sets of Chopin etudes, although they have a quirky, unique quality that is somehow quintessential to this composer. Two of the longer etudes in the set are Lisztian tone poems, while others focus on technical problems. As with the Chopin and Liszt etudes, these works are substantial pieces of music rather than empty technical exercises.

Mark Viner does a superb job in presenting this relatively neglected work to the general public. As with many of Alkan’s works, it requires a big technique. Viner delivers in spades, providing us with a highly polished execution of the rapid-fire chords, octaves and intricate passage-work. He plays with an extraordinary degree of clarity throughout, and uses the pedal judiciously. Viner is particularly to be commended for ensuring that the technical difficulties are never an exercise in empty bravura but rather a means to illuminate the musicality and inventiveness of these works.

The rolled chords of the opening A Major Etude have an easy charm and sunny lyricism; it provided a nice curtain-raiser for the set. I loved the shimmering impressionistic textures which Viner conjured up in the G Major, while the C Major tremolo Etude was a virtuoso tour de force. Viner kept the textures clean and incisive, and did a marvellous job conveying the quicksilver, mercurial quality of the piece. Allegro barbaro is perhaps the most famous etude in the set; it foreshadows Bartók’s piece of the same name. Viner dispatched the octaves with enormous power, and executed the taut driving rhythms and accents without breaking the tone. I was interested to read in Viner’s highly informative programme notes about the technical difficulties associated with the B Flat Etude. His performance of the piece sounded entirely effortless, and he brought a wonderful radiance to the opening section.

The first of the programmatic etudes is entitled ‘Fire in the neighbouring village’. Viner’s excellent performance conjured up a rural idyll in the opening siciliano section before ominous drum rolls and volleys of broken octaves lent dramatic impetus to the proceedings. This work has divided critical opinion. I must confess that I did have some reservations about the musical quality of this piece, notwithstanding Viner’s Herculean efforts. I much preferred the tenth etude entitled ‘Song of Love – Song of Death’, an enormously inventive work. The opening section had a poised Classical elegance. Viner propelled us along through the various key changes to the grotesque final section which was all the more shocking given the earlier material. In the eighth etude, Viner gave us a lovers’ duet accompanied by a plucked lute accompaniment. I would have liked to hear a little more of the passion in the song in this etude but the plucked strings were evoked beautifully. The ninth etude is a gargantuan Bachian two-part invention which Viner executed with consummate clarity. He ended the set with a scintillating performance of the final E Major etude. I really enjoyed the dance-like quality he brought to the piece while negotiating the thickets of octaves and interlocking chords while the final section was a virtuoso tour de force.

Viner’s performance compares well with that of Stephanie McCallum. He must now rank as one of the pre-eminent Alkan interpreters alongside Smith, Hamelin and others. Overall, this is a first-class recital of a work which deserves to be known much more widely. It is highly recommended.

Robert Beattie



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