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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Complete Piano Music Vol. 4 - Paraphrases, Marches and Symphonie for Solo Piano
Mark Viner (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Westvest Church Schiedam, The Netherlands
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included

I first encountered the British-born pianist Mark Viner when I sought comparatives for my review of his French-Canadian rival Marc-André Hamelin’s recent recording of opera transcriptions and fantasias by Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg. (That was one of my top picks for 2020.) And what I heard of Viner certainly piqued my interest. I’ve since come to know and admire his two Thalberg albums, Opera Fantasies (Piano Classics PCL0092), and Apothéose & Fantasies on French Opera (PCL10178). Now I’ve belatedly discovered he has embarked on a comprehensive survey of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s works, of which this is the fourth instalment. At the time of writing - February 2021 - only Vol. 1 has been reviewed on these pages, an omission I plan to rectify very soon.

Viner faces fierce competition here, most notably from Hamelin, who has also devoted four CDs to Alkan’s astonishing oeuvre (Hyperion). The latter’s performance of the Symphonie for Solo Piano has reigned supreme for so long (review). But not even the master of Montréal could have predicted that barrister Paul Wee would challenge him in that piece and trounce him in its companion, the Concerto (review). Even more remarkably, Wee featured not once but twice among my Recordings of the Year for 2020, with that tour de force and its follow-up, a quite magical account of Thalberg’s L’art du chant appliqué au piano (review). Rivalries aside, what unites these keyboard kings is their unstinting musicality - no shallow, self-aggrandising showmanship here - which is especially welcome in repertoire with a high-octane rating. Not only that, they tend to be superbly recorded, which makes their recitals even more desirable.

This well-chosen programme starts with two paraphrases, one based on Salut, cendre du pauvre!, a poem by Gabriel-Marie Jean-Baptiste Legouvé (1764-1812), the other on Super flumina Babylonis, better known as Psalm 137. The dark opening sonorities of the first are as weighty as they should be, Peter Arts’s warm, detailed and beautifully balanced recording just right for this rep. (Also, this Dutch church seems to have a most congenial acoustic, which always helps.) But what enchanted me even more is Viner’s poised, wonderfully expressive response to the piece. Phrasing is natural, dynamic control is exemplary and it’s all delivered with a quiet assurance that can’t fail to impress. Spellbound, I simply had to listen again, which only confirmed what I’d already begun to suspect, that this was going to be a very special album indeed. As for the psalm paraphrase, it finds pianist and composer at their lucid, finely wrought best, a sense of discovery - and barely concealed delight - in every bar. Indeed, I’d say Viner demonstrates an even greater affinity for Alkan’s music than he does for that of Liszt and Thalberg.

The remaining fillers - the Alleluia, the funeral and triumphal marches and the world-premiere recording of the complete Trois Marches quasi da cavalleria - are no less enjoyable and illuminating. The very faithful piano sound is a joy to behold, especially in the glorious bass chords of the Alleluia, the extended treble as sweet and clear as one could wish. Moving on, the funereal tread and tone of Op 26 is lightened by some particularly agile writing for the right hand. But overriding impressions here - and in the celebratory Op 27 - are of a composer at ease with his defiant, even subversive craft and a sympathetic interpreter who exploits it to the full. As with Opp 26 and 27, the Trois marches eludes easy categorisation. (Then again, presenting the conventional in unconventional ways is what this composer does best.) Underlying rhythms are leavened with quirky figuration and laced with a lively, liberating wit.

At this point I revisited Hamelin’s accounts of the Alleluia and both paraphrases, as recorded on that album I reviewed in 2007. I signed off by saying this isn’t music I’d want to hear very often. (In my defence, I was still new to Alkan.) Could it be that Hamelin’s crystalline, extremely forensic approach to this music - helped along by Hyperion’s very analytical sound - coloured my responses at the time? Well, those performances, still impressive, now seem a bit short on personality when compared with Viner’s. To be fair, I do feel the French-Canadian has mellowed over the past fourteen years; that blazing talent remains undimmed, but it’s now been complemented by a warmth and depth of insight/feeling that makes for a much more rounded artist. Remarkably, it seems Viner is already there, which is why his Alkan performances feel so rewarding, so complete.

And so it is with the Symphonie, its four movements a complex kaleidoscope of shapes and colours that demands playing of the highest order. And that’s exactly what it gets from Hamelin, Wee and Viner. However, there’s something that separates their individual readings: the first two pianists bring out the sheer brilliance of this score, whereas Viner reveals its ambitious - nay, audacious - design. Time and again, I held my breath and marvelled at the variety and detail he finds here. That Viner achieves all that and still brings so much character and excitement to his performance is really quite extraordinary. Goodness, it would be hard to imagine a more thorough and authoritative exposition of the piece than this. (Hamelin’s crown, hard won, must now be in jeopardy.) And while Dave Hinitt’s engineering for Wee is in a class of its own, Arts’s isn’t far behind. Finally, Viner’s excellent booklet essay, which strikes a good balance between analysis and biography, is a model of its kind.

Astounding music, superbly played and recorded; a mandatory purchase for Alkanites and pianophiles alike.

Dan Morgan

Salut, cendre du pauvre!, paraphrase
, Op 45 (1856) [8:17]
Super flumina Babylonis, paraphrase, Op 52 (1859) [6:14]
Trois Marches quasi da cavalleria, Op 37 (1857)
I. Allegro molto [5:09]
II. Allegro vivace* [4:35]
III. Allegro* [4:55]
Alleluia, Op 25 (1844) [2:36]
Marche funèbre, Op 26 (1846) [8:30]
Marche triomphale, Op 27 (1846) [4:59]
Douze Etudes dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 (1857)
Nos 4-7 ‘Symphonie’
No 4 Allegro Moderato (10:38]
No 5 Marche funèbre: Andantino [5:59]
No 6 Menuet [5:41]
No 7 Finale: Presto [4:17]

* First recordings



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