Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Symphony for Solo Piano - Nos 4-7, Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs (12 studies in the minor
keys), Op. 39 (1857) [26:16]
Concerto for Solo Piano - Nos 8-10, Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs [51:30]
Paul Wee (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Hall One, Kings Place, London
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2465 SACD
In life, the French composer and virtuoso pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan
was something of a legend; in death too, for supposedly being killed by a
falling bookcase. (That colourful rumour has now been well and truly
scotched.) What is indisputable, though, is that Alkan’s oeuvre contains
some of the most challenging music ever written; as such, it demands
pianists of considerable skill and stamina. Quebec-born Marc-André
Hamelin, who introduced me to these scores, certainly fits the bill.
Indeed, his 2006 recording of the
Concerto for Solo Piano
is my benchmark for the piece, as is his account of the
Symphony for Solo Piano,
set down six years earlier.
There are very few recordings of either work in the catalogue - perhaps
because they’re just too daunting - so all credit to Paul Wee for tackling
both. Born in Australia to Singaporean and Malaysian parents, he began his
piano studies at the age of four, appearing in concert at the Royal Albert
Hall eight years later. The intriguing thing about him is that although he
went on to the Manhattan School of Music he then decided to read law at
Oxford. Now a successful barrister, Wee’s life took another unexpected turn
when he agreed to play the Concerto at an Alkan Society recital in July
2016. The performance was so well received it prompted a recording, made by
Mike Spring of APR Records, which was then sent to BIS boss Robert von
Bahr. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Symphony and Concerto are part of Alkan’s dizzyingly difficult set of 12 Studies in the minor keys, published at the height of
his career. Reacquainting myself with Hamelin’s account of the former, I
was struck anew by the crystalline certainty and strength of his playing.
Indeed, I can’t imagine the music framed with more authority and insight
than it is there. Factor in a fine recording, engineered by Tony Faulkner,
and you can understand why that is such a celebrated album. I’d go even
further, and suggest it’s one of the best things Hamelin’s ever done; it’s
right up there with his unassailable rendition of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! and North American Ballads (Hyperion).
So, what chance does a relative unknown, albeit a very talented one, have
in such intimidating company? I was sceptical at first, but minutes into
Wee’s account of the Symphony’s first movement all doubts dissolved.
Goodness, what a commanding presence, and how apt his approach to this
complex score. And even though he can only aspire to Hamelin’s intensely
forensic manner and depth of character, he does create - and sustain - a
very strong narrative. He clearly knows the architecture of the piece, its
felicities and foibles, so it matters not a jot that his funeral march
isn’t quite as strange as Hamelin’s. In his defence, though, Wee’s
playing is both eloquent and engaging. He’s aided and abetted in this happy
enterprise by David Hinitt’s warm, comparatively soft edged recording.
(That said, the sound has ample body and frisson-inducing attack.)
Wee’s outstanding in the Symphony’s penultimate movement, a fluid and
feisty little minuet that really plays to his strengths. And while Hamelin
is even more impressive here - his technique is flawless - Wee’s
revitalising pianism has its own rewards. However, the gap widens in the
finale, where Hamelin’s mercurial playing is simply breathtaking. In short,
when it comes to the vaulting ambition and volatile temperament of this
work, the master from Montreal is sans pareil. That said, his
plucky challenger gives him a good run for his money, here and elsewhere.
Me? I’d want both versions on my desert island, not least for their very
different perspectives on this fascinating score.
Given the accolades heaped on Wee’s Concerto recital, I expected this
recording to be rather special. It’s a mammoth piece - its three movements
span fifty minutes or so - in which the pianist assumes the dual roles of
soloist and orchestra. Pianistic challenges don’t come any greater than
this, and I’m pleased to report Wee’s traversal of the 30-minute Allegro is
quite everything I’d hoped for (and more). Fresh, open and utterly
spontaneous, this epic opener is a carousel of delight. Subtlety and nuance
abound, and the piano sound is just ravishing. There’s real wit as well,
those rollicking passages worthy accompaniments to a Mack Sennett silent.
Just as noteworthy is Wee’s intuitive control of shape and pace, so that
even when Alkan goes off at a tangent - as he’s wont to do - the sense of
cohesion and purpose is never lost. And how grand the big moments, this
remarkable pianist at his coruscating best.
Happily, the revelations don’t stop there, Wee’s expressive range, supple
rhythms and finely shaded dynamics carried over into the comparatively
brief Adagio. As if that weren’t enough, he’s so beguiling in those oases
of gentle lyricism and quiet intimacy, the music’s colours and detail most
beautifully rendered. And yes, there’s a thrilling sense of dialogue, of
advance and riposte, especially in the barnstorming finale. In that
respect, he’s at least the equal of his older, more experienced rival.
However, revisiting Hamelin’s Concerto, I soon found many instances where I
much preferred Wee’s more thoughtful and enlightening performance. (He’s
much better recorded, too.) Now I understand why the teacher and critic
Bryce Morrison, who was at the original recital, insisted a recording be
made. For that, he, Spring and von Bahr have surely earned the gratitude of
Alkanites and pianophiles everywhere.
Daunting rep, dazzlingly done; what a treat!