Alkan Esquisses Op 63
Here is a superlative record of music to confound the sceptics, including Steven Osborne himself who, in his witty and concentrated accompanying essay, expresses his surprise on discovering Alkan’s Esquisses and their journey into intimacy rather than gargantuan bravura. Not that these 48 fragments, many of them of a teasing and enigmatic brevity, could be by any other composer. Gnomic, introspective, full of odd twists and turns of phrase and expression, they invariably catch you unawares.
In ‘Confidence’, a Field-like innocence is countered by enough surprises to at once declare the composer’s identity. ‘Les Soupirs’ is so much more than a foretaste of Debussyan impressionism. ‘Inflexibilité’ holds the listener in a vice-like grip and the change from charm (‘Petite marche villageoise’) to grimness (‘Morituri te salutant’) is wholly typical of Alkan’s volatile yet rigorous command of the widest variety of ideas and pastiches. ‘Le frisson’, ‘Pseudo-Naïveté’, ‘Délire’, ‘Fais Dodo’, ‘L’Homme aux sabots’ – the very titles predict an eccentricity that is nonetheless qualified by a formidable intellectual focus.
Laurent Martin’s able but limited Naxos recording (the Esquisses call for the widest variety of responses) is quite surpassed by Osborne, whose performances are of a sensitivity, radiance and finesse rarely encountered from even the finest pianists. He floats the opening of ‘La vision’ in a magical haze or nimbus of sound (‘aussi chante et lie que possible’ indeed), peppers the keyboard with an immaculate virtuosity in ‘La staccatissimo’, relishes the Norwegien tang of ‘Début de quatuor’ (almost as if Grieg had stepped into the picture) and brings a wicked frisson to ‘Les diablotins’ where Alkan’s little devils are hustled from the field almost as if the composer had lost patience with his own grotesque creation. Misha Donat’s notes are as affectionate as they are perceptive and Hyperion’s sound is of demonstration quality. An invaluable disc, particularly for those drawn to music’s by-ways.