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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. 2017/2018, Hall One, Kings Place, London
BIS BIS-2465 SACD [78:32]

I’ve been interested in the music of Alkan for probably around 20 years – he was recommended to me by a friend who often made suggestions of unusual composers I might like to seek out. As a result, I have several recordings of both of these works in my CD library but this is apparently the only one available which contains both of these incredible works on a single disc. It is also the only recording by a non-professional pianist - more on this later on.

Alkan recordings seem to be increasing in frequency recently - to my knowledge there have been several new ones in the last few months - the brilliant Mark Viner’s Op.35 major key Etudes and the Preludes (review), the phenomenal Yui Morishita’s Esquisse, Op.63, and lastly this one. My Alkan Society newsletter also informs me of several others either released recently or on the way.

Anyway, firstly we have the Symphony for Solo Piano with its wonderful complex multi-faceted first movement, full of technical difficulties and memorable themes. Nothing is omitted here and no technical hurdle is too much for this splendid pianist. The ending is particularly impressive, with the staccato chords about 9:20 especially clear, and the resultant headlong rush to the conclusion is magnificent. The ending comes as something of a surprise in that it is quiet and austere. The following movement is a ‘Funeral March’ which is taken at a fairly quick pace in comparison to some other performances I know. This gives the music a sense of movement, as a march should have. The clarity here in the right hand is absolutely amazing. It’s an odd piece in that, despite the title, it is not actually that miserable – a bit like Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, heroic and defiant. The contrasted central section is beautifully played and quite an arresting contrast before it is displaced with the return of the opening trudging march. Absolutely splendid! Next is the ‘Menuet’ which defies description – it’s not anything like say, a Haydn minuet; it’s a powerful, very rapid finger-twisting showpiece with many leaps and horrendous technical difficulties to overcome. Again, none of these present any problems whatsoever to Mr. Wee who takes them all in his stride. I always judge performances of this work by the finale, the part which Raymond Lewenthal aptly described as “a ride in hell”. This is a very apt description as the piece is marked to be taken at a tremendous pace and contains many technical difficulties. Looking at timings of the recordings I own, there is only one pianist who plays it faster than Paul Wee and that is Raymond Lewenthal himself. Obviously, it’s not all about speed though, as the virtuosity is not a means to an end here, it is for genuine musical reasons and Mr. Wee’s performance is utterly stupendous and spot on. This is my new favourite performance of the whole symphony as there are many details in the playing which are not usually apparent. It’s a stunning performance all round.

This is not actually the first time that Paul Wee has recorded the Concerto for Solo Piano – the Alkan Society issued a disc of a live performance about 2 years ago, but this is his first professional recording. There is little difference in timing between the two performances although the earlier one is very slightly faster in all three movements of this piece (somehow!) Anyway, I have investigated this work seriously over the years and I really like the performance by John Ogdon whose recording of the first movement verges on brutal although, in my humble opinion, his second and third movements are less convincing. On the present disc, the opening is taken at a slightly more measured tempo than usual but there is a clarity and precision to the playing which is not often heard. The opening “Tutti” part of this concerto is extremely powerful and builds impressively to the “entry” of the solo piano with a massive scale. The structure of this movement is complex but very tightly constructed, and despite numerous tempo and mood changes the work holds together splendidly in this performance. There is no issue with some of the horribly difficult technical demands in this piece as they are all negotiated with flair, precision and accuracy. Overall, Mr. Wee is a little slower than John Ogdon, Marc-Andre Hamelin (in either of his 2 recordings), Ronald Smith, Jack Gibbons, Yui Morishita and Vicenzo Maltempo (all of whose recordings I own); his articulation is brilliant and the clarity is amazing. There is significantly less brutality here than with Ogdon and the beautiful moments in this work - and there are quite a few - are wonderfully played. This is a super performance of this movement; it ticks all the right boxes and is magnificently played. The ending is particularly jubilant and powerful.

The second movement is a strange piece, starting out with a “quasi cello” tune before evolving into something much darker with muffled funereal beats and powerful outbursts. The way this piece is phrased in this performance is different to other performances I’ve heard; there is a smoothness to the way the contrasted themes are fitted together which works really well. It’s almost like a rounding off at the end of the tune which means the piece seems to grow organically as it proceeds. Interestingly, the Jewish-sounding aspects in this movement seem to come across really noticeably in this performance. When the massive tremelandos (which are in 10ths for the left hand and terribly hard even for someone with a large hand span) start at 5:37, the whole atmosphere of the piece changes to something far more sinister. This short, violent passage gives way to the muffled funereal music I mentioned before. This is extremely well controlled here and there is a real sense of dread. The atmosphere slowly lightens before the “quasi cello” theme from the opening returns, only to be interrupted by the muffled drum theme again. The ending, if you don’t know the work, is shockingly loud and discordant.

I’ve worked on this piece from time to time and, while there are parts of the first and second movement which are not insurmountable, the finale has always eluded me completely. On the page, it is a mad scramble of notes, full of huge leaps, massive chords, awkward accidentals, polyrhythms and numerous technical hurdles; however, Mr. Wee plays the movement as if it was simple. The tempo direction here is Allegretto alla barbaresca and this performance certainly manages to be that! No details are fudged despite the tremendous pace at which he plays the piece, the overall shape of the music is exquisitely fashioned and the pedalling is perfectly judged (which it needs to be to allow the details to remain clear while the notes are dispatched at this speed). Of the three movements of this work, this is generally my least favourite; however, this performance has made me revise my view in a positive way. This is an utterly mind-boggling performance in every respect and a fitting conclusion to a marvellous performance of this complex and extremely taxing work.

The cover notes, by Mr. Wee himself, are detailed and interesting. The disc is presented in what BIS call an “ecopak” which doesn’t involve the usual plastic jewel case and seems to be made entirely of cardboard, so presumably is fully recyclable. The running time is very generous – and it needs to be to fit these 2 large works on one disc! Regarding the performance, I have no hesitation whatsoever as recommending this disc to anyone who enjoys superb pianism – made even more incredible by the fact that Paul Wee isn’t a professional pianist – he is a barrister by profession, albeit one who trained in music before switching to the law. I really don’t know how someone manages to juggle a full-time career and be such an amazingly talented pianist - as Alkan himself might have put it “Chapeau bas!”

I really look forward to his future recordings as, according to an interview in International Piano, he intends to record all sorts of repertoire which I would like to hear.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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