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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 [78:32]

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!

Dan Morgan

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