Charles-Valentin Alkan: Sinfonie für Soloklavier Import
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Marc-André Hamelin's first solo Alkan recording (CDA66794) met with the most superlative critical reception imaginable (culminating in Fanfare magazine's "one of the best releases of anything to have been made, a classic of the recorded era"). This follow-up proves to be no less spectacular. The disc is framed by two of the 'monster' works for which Alkan is notorious. The four movements of the Symphony for solo piano are taken from his magnum opus, the 12 Studies in the minor keys Op 39. This piece has become one of Alkan's best known but never has its finale (once described as a 'ride in hell') been so spectacularly thrown off. The Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique are the earliest pieces in which Alkan's true personal style became apparent. These are three massive studies each with programmatic titles and an atmosphere of Gothic horror that requires a supreme virtuoso to tackle their outlandish technical demands. This is their first recording. The recital is completed by three pieces of rather religious inspiration. While their scale and technical demands are those of a more conventional composer, their quirky sound-world and often sardonic mood confirm the composer as our reclusive Frenchman.
GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE 'Hamelin's playing is not only mind-blowingly virtuosic but powerfully ardent and touchingly sensitive to boot. Absolutely not to be missed!' (www.bn.com) 'This quite exceptional recording confirms Marc-André Hamelin as the greatest living exponent of Alkan's music ... spontaneous, inspirational playing in which the architecture of each work, phrasing, astonishing accuracy and articulation, and the full use of the tonal resources of the instrument combine to illuminate these extravagant scores as never before' (International Record Review) 'Hamelin has no equal as an interpreter of Alkan; he inhabits the overheated world of this strange proto-Lisztian figure with a completeness that combines a total mastery of its fearsome technical challenges with an innate understanding of its sometimes elusive emotional content' (The Guardian) 'Marc-André Hamelin puts us further in his debt with another superbly played disc of Alkan ... [the Symphony s] big-boned, exorbitantly taxing writing draws appropriately stunning pianism from Hamelin' (BBC Music Magazine) 'Ear-boggling ... Another self-recommending discographic coup. What next? I'm all ears' --Fanfare, USA
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Auch die restlichen Stücke würden es verdienen, nicht weiter im Dunkel der Vergessenheit zu ruhen. "Salut, cendre du pauvre!" ist ein Trauermarsch-ähnliches Stück mit dramatischem Mittelteil, während "Alleluja" einen hymnisch-exaltierten Ausruf kompositorischer Freude darstellt. "Super flumina Babylonis", eine Vertonung des 137. Psalms, beginnt ruhig, schließt aber mit einem Alkan-typischen Ausbruch höchster Virtuosität, dem in diesem Fall jedoch nicht ganz so viel musikalischer Gehalt gegenübersteht. Anders bei den letzten drei "Souvenirs": dem lyrischen, aber pianistisch sehr anspruchsvollen "Aime-moi" folgt das unheimlich-chromatische "Le vent", bei dem man sich wie auch im Schlußsatz der 2. Chopin-Sonate einen über Gräber heulenden Wind vorstellen könnte. Dazu paßt auch das letzte Stück "Morte", ein Trauergesang, in dem auch das oft aufgegriffene Dies irae-Thema vorkommt; kompositorisch so kühn wie etwa Liszts Spätwerke und in seiner harmonischen Eigenart fast verstörend originell. - Das verhältnismäßig umfangreiche Booklet und das sehr gute Klang runden das exzellente Gesamtbild positiv ab.
Hamelin spielt wie immer phantastisch souverän und technisch wie musikalisch ohne jede Schwäche. Alkans Grundmaterial kann allerdings nicht überzeugen. Die große Symphonie - ich habe sie nun viele Male gehört - hinterläßt schlicht und ergreifend keinen bleibenden Eindruck. Wo sich Liszts Sonate h-moll noch nach Tagen "im Ohr" befindet, der 4. Satz aus Schumanns op. 14 immer wieder in die alltäglichen Gedanken drängt, bleibt bei Alkan - nichts.
Man kann den Ausnahmepianisten nicht für sein Spiel kritisieren. Allerdings bleibt mein Eindruck, daß er sich ausnahmsweise im Repertoire vergriffen hat und ein Werk interpretiert, das eines Hamelin nicht würdig ist.
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I think this is the most emotional of the three I have (also Troisieme recueil de chants, and Grande Sonate "Les quatre ages"). The beginning piece "Alegro" seems to me a beautiful, but at times, a soul searing ride to death as portrayed on the front illustration "The Dead Go Fast". Nice art pick by Hyperion. The "Finale Presto" made me laugh. It seems traditional, but also sarcastic. I can just see clowns running all over and into each other because of those fast notes. And the "Presto" and many of Alkan's other pieces make use of such fast notes that the piano sounds like water (or in the case of "Le Vent" wind).
I feel so lucky that these works are available on Amazon. Hope other "amateurs" give them a try.
And those deeper qualities are there in Alkan's music in the same manner they are there in Liszt's. Alkan was no second-rate craftsman of empty vehicles for virtuosic display (though the music is a vehicle for virtuosic display as well). The Symphony for solo piano, which comprises nos. 4-7 of his magnum opus the 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs op.39 (the Concerto for solo piano, which is perhaps even more spectacular for sheer technical wizardry, comprises nos. 8-10), is something of a masterpiece, or at least close to being one. Though one may, perhaps, question how well it works as a unified work, the movements are individually marvelous pieces and the fourth movement, in particular, is as gripping as anything Liszt ever wrote. And as already made clear, Hamelin dispatches this fiendishly challenging work with a level of flair and panache equal to nothing, while simultaneously bringing out all the details of the arguments while maintaining the overall narrative momentum. Take for instance the precision of the playing and, in particular, the scary exactitude with which he judges and realizes the most minute hints of a change in dynamics in small phrases or even series of repeated notes, even in the tempestuous torrents and avalanches of notes in the outer movements - well, I don't know what to say about it except to shake my head in disbelief.
Of course, the Symphony is the main work here. The three Morceau dans le genre pathétique, however, are atmospheric, colorful and memorable works as well, and they are dispatched with the same kind of technical aplomb. The three shorter works offered in the middle are perhaps less immediately memorable, but in Hamelin's hands they come across as more than I suspect they might be. Hyperion's sound is clear and well-balanced, and precisely correctly distanced for us to be able to hear everything Hamelin is playing in crystalline clarity without losing its warmth. The notes are good as well, and in the short there is little doubt that this is a modern classic, a document for the future alongside the greatest of the legendary piano performances of the past. A magnificent achievement and an essential acquisition.
For those new to Alkan, this is probably the best place to start. Although, after my own first hearing of this CD, I immediately ordered every Alkan CD on the Naxos label and found the Op. 35 Etudes an essential showcase for Alkan's unbelievable genius. It's hard to believe that this obscure hermit who lived next to Chopin was composing such original and extraordinary music. A beginner to Alkan's music might sense a fusion between the styles of Chopin and Liszt, with a spice of Schumann and a tinge of Rachmaninov, if that's possible. Alkan possesses all the faculties for creating gorgeous and beautiful melodies; indeed, he holds his own with Chopin in that area. But Alkan's renowned for composing demonic works with monstrous technical passages that stretch the limits of the piano. While this reputation tends to overshadow his musicality and Beethovenian depth of expression, Alkan is frankly successful with writing tour-de-force compositions. He does it better than Liszt himself, as exemplified by the menacing crashes of the Symphony for Solo Piano and the violent coda of Morte from the Op. 15.
The Symphony for Solo Piano is a masterpiece in my book. I've heard countless large-scale piano works and I must say nothing has ever made such an impression on me as this portion of the Op. 39. With Classical structure and Romantic furor, the work rivals any contemporary Sonata from Chopin, Schumann or even Brahms for that matter. To quote Francois Luguenot, "The structure of the piece is as perfect, and its proportions as harmonious, as those of a movement in a symphony by Mendelssohn, but the whole is dominated by a deeply passionate mood." Indeed, whether in the brooding first Allegro movement, the satirically gloomy funeral march, or the tempestuous Menuet, one can easily see that this work is a monumental tapestry of music. There is a comforting but mind-blowing range of expression in this masterpiece. If devilish torrents of pianism appeal to you, I guarantee the Finale, a "ride in hell" as Raymond Lewenthal aptly said, will tingle your spine and keep the blood pumping.
After listening to this recording dozens of times, I'm convinced the highlight of the CD is actually the Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathetique Op. 15. Although harshly criticized by Schumann, I've never heard better works of their kind, whether from Chopin, Liszt, Henselt, or Rubinstein. This Op. 15 is a trinity of towering, gushing Romantic piano compositions. The first, Aime-moi, is astonishing in its scope, expressive ideas, and utter transcendence. Hamelin reveals a breathtaking degree of interpretative clairvoyance here. Even more tremendous is the simple but profound "Le vent," a heart-wrenching and melancholy excursion that defies the sonorities of the piano. To quote Liszt, "'Le vent' is the most Romantic of the three...One can almost hear the rain trickling down the oak trees' trunks, and, in great reverence, one can listen to the tune which floats above all these subdued murmurings, like the song of the lover or the poet as he looks upon Nature's sorrow yet without feeling that sadness in himself because he holds in his heart the gentle glow of a memory or a hope." Concluding this trio of jewels, Morte explores a dark abyss of sound, generating a level of pathos and fury unlike anything I've heard. The sinister "Dies Irae" opening leads to a lamenting and morbid development, replete with beautifully somber phrases and violent outbursts. Morte's underlying dark beauty and intensity shares a plateau with Beethoven's own Funeral Marches, in my view.
The three pieces that separate the Symphony for Solo Piano and the Op. 15 are equally impressive, as well. "Salut, cendre du pauvre!" is satisfyingly enchanting, dark, and pensive. Likewise, the "Super flumina Babylonis" proves to be just as engrossing, with memorable and intelligent ideas. Some other reviewers have spoken unkindly towards the glorious "Alleluia," but I don't believe it's as superficial as some have labeled it: Alkan's sense of replicating the organ's textures into the piano's registers, and the sheer majestic effect of a chorus, are all inherent in this brief but ecstatic work.
Bottom line: Those with an affinity for Liszt and Romantic piano will almost automatically love this music. The impact of hearing this magnificent but neglected music is like that of discovering fire by accident. It's one of the best CD's I've purchased in years; the performance of the extraordinary and god-like pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin, is a triumph. I implore the reader to buy this right now and discover the stupendous music of Alkan.