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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Piano Pleasures: Marc-Andre Hamelin Plays Alkan

Charles-Valentin Morhange, better known as Alkan (1813-1888), is one of the great, lost piano composers of 19th century France. Great, because his challenging, complex music is written on an epic scale with technical virtuosity that rivals the works of Franz Liszt. Lost, because Alkan was a misanthrope, and quite possibly an agoraphobe. He was also an Orthodox Jew who studied the Talmud and music with equal fervor. The opposite of the flamboyant Liszt, Alkan gave recitals infrequently, taught occasionally, and disappeared for years at a stretch, either travelling abroad or holed up in his Paris apartment, receiving no visitors.

Thanks to a few, brave pianists with fingers and nerves of steel, Alkan's dizzying music is now available to sample on CD. A good place to start is this 1994 recital disc by Marc-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion, featuring the Grande Sonate (Les Quatres Ages) and the Sonatine. The French-Canadian pianist meets the vast technical challenges of this music, but chooses fearsome accuracy over flashy showmanship. This is a performance of extreme dynamics. The artist slams the hammer down at the appropriate climactic moments, but then slows down with an elegant, expansive lyric touch.

The Grande Sonate is a vast, 38 minute piano workout. It depicts four ages of man, at 20, 30, 40 and 50 years old. Each movement is in a different key, and at a slower tempo than the one before it. The opening is a breakneck scherzo, with Hamelin blazing all over the keyboard, tossing off runs of arpeggiated notes. The second movement (marked Quasi-Faust) is a march. The third slows down further with the onset of middle age, and the fourth, (marked Prométheé enchaîné) is a somber, slow finale.

The four-movement Sonatine is half the size of the Quatre Ages. But it has its own charms, drawing in the listener and displaying some of Alkan's melodic ability. Like its big brother, this work is technically demanding, with fortissimo passages, dance movements, and a difficult final coda.

The disc is filled out with two smaller works, a lilting Barcarolle (inspired by Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words) and Le Festin d'Esope, the finale of Alkan's 12 Etudes for the piano. This last is a set of dazzling variations on a Jewish folk melody, reflecting the composer's Orthodox heritage and command of incredible technical skill. The performances are top-notch, and the sound of this disc is everything that a piano recording should be, full, round and thrilling.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.