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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Complete Piano Music Vol. 3
Grande Sonate, ‘Les quatre âges’, Op 33 (1848) [37:11]
SouvenirsTrois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op 15 (1837) [30:11]
Mark Viner (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Westvest Church Schiedam, The Netherlands
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included

Having just reviewed the latest volume in this ongoing series - it was a MusicWeb Recording of the Month in March 2021 - I’m now making good my promise to assess its predecessors. I first encountered the British pianist Mark Viner when seeking comparatives for my review of Quebec-born Marc-André Hamelin’s recent recording of opera transcriptions and fantasias by Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg. Interest duly piqued, I downloaded his two Thalberg albums, Opera Fantasies (Piano Classics PCL0092) and Apothéose & Fantasies on French Opera (PCL10178). That led to my belated discovery of his intriguing Alkan project, the initial instalment of which was welcomed by Robert Beattie in 2018. Significantly, it, too, was a Recording of the Month.

As it happens, Viner is up against his Piano Classics stablemate, the Italian pianist Vincenzo Maltempo, whose Grande Sonate and Trois Morceaux are included in Alkan: Genius-Enigma (PCLM0088). Released in 2015, that 3-CD set repackages recordings he made in Rome between 2011 and 2013. The USP of those performances is that they’re played on an 1899 Érard, whose lighter, brighter tone often - but not always - reveals aspects of the music that the heftier sound of a modern concert grand might obscure. Maltempo’s choice of instrument aside, he’s clearly a very fine pianist; what’s more, he knows his way around these scores. As for the recordings themselves, they’re decent enough, if somewhat variable. The bad news, if you’re a downloader, is the lack of a digital booklet.

And then there’s Hamelin’s accounts of Alkan’s most challenging works; his Grande Sonate, recorded in 1994, is not to be missed (Hyperion CDA66794). Apart from a fearless, flawless technique, he brings a thrilling breadth and power to this and other Alkan showstoppers, such as the concerto and symphony for solo piano (CDA67569 and 67218 respectively). Indeed, he has few peers in this rep, although Viner and the extraordinary barrister-pianist Paul Wee have been known to run him very, very close.

In four movements, the Grande Sonate starts with a giddy, catch-me-if-you-can Scherzo, which Viner articulates and animates with consummate skill, that insistent, rather mischievous little figure for the left hand particularly well done. How magnificently - how intuitively - he shapes and drives the music, his phenomenal finger-work a joy to behold. But it’s not just about dexterity, for there’s a generosity of spirit here that Maltempo and Hamelin, impressive in other ways, don’t always convey. Generally, honours are quite evenly divided in this delightful opener, although Viner has the advantage of a warmer, more congenial sound than either of his rivals. That said, it’s Hamelin who surges into the lead with a frankly staggering account of the Allegro. Tony Faulkner and Mike Dutton’s recording is a barnstormer, too.

Maltempo and Viner aren’t milquetoasts, though, and what their performances may lack in sheer attack and amplitude they more than make up for with added colour and detail. Not to be outdone, the latter responds with a lovely, open-hearted reading of the rather songful Andante. Of particular note here is the pianist’s feel for mood and line - for poetry - which separates him from his slightly prosaic competitors. As for the darkly ruminative Largo, Viner and Hamelin appear to understate the Dies irae first time around, although that serves to amplify its impact later on. Maltempo is much more upfront at this point; indeed, I started to feel his performance was a little too slick, the bright recording flirting with listener fatigue. By contrast, Viner is suitably Stygian when it counts, although Hamelin probably conveys the equivocal nature of this music most effectively. It’s a close race, at least where Hamelin and Viner are concerned. That said, it’s the Briton who deserves the palm, as his performance is the most consistent and enlightening - the most rounded - of the three. The Italian finishes a distant third, his chosen instrument not the asset I expected it to be. His recording disappoints, too.

The Érard’s expressive limitations are even more of an issue in the Trois morceaux, the overall effect not so much light as lightweight. Alas, that means Maltempo is denied a place in the finals; a pity, as he plays so well. The remaining contenders are splendid in Alkan’s mellifluous opener, although Hamelin, as forensic as ever, misses some of the music’s charm. For that, and a whole lot more, look no further than Viner; his playing is alive with colour and nuance. Not only that, he creates a compelling story, with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end, something that Hamelin can’t quite manage. Also, Viner seems more fluid in the second piece, his glorious runs made to sound so easy. But it’s in the third piece that the latter impresses most, his sensitive, beautifully shaped reading supported by a recording that charts every detail of Alkan’s shifting musical and emotional landscapes. (The piano’s firm, extended bass, well caught, is a welcome bonus.) In the end, though, it’s not just about a compelling narrative, it’s about the weaving of spells, and Viner’s a wiz at both. His liner-notes are pretty good, too.

A superb addition to what’s fast becoming an indispensable series; Alkanites and pianophiles, rejoice!

Dan Morgan

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