Alkan Piano Works
The Gramophone Classical Catalogue seems to be bursting at the seams with superlative Alkan recordings – Marc-Andre Hamelin has given us the first CD recording of the Concerto for Solo Piano from the Op. 39 Etudes (Music & Arts, 8/93), the three Etudes, Op. 76 (Hyperion, 3/95), and more recently an Alkan recital that includes, among other things, the
''Comme le vent'' (''Like the wind''), the opening Etude from Op. 39, is a real baptism of fire for the pianist. Marked prestissimamente it is an unrelenting deluge of notes which, if played at Alkan's specified metronome marking, travels at the rate of 160 bars per minute, or to put it another way, traverses 20 densely packed pages in just 4'30''. Ringeissen's recording on Marco Polo, whilst still astonishing, sounds positively pedestrian next to Jack Gibbons, who throws caution to the wind, and completes the whirlwind in a staggering 4'38''. Despite the odd occasion when he comes perilously close to tumbling into the abyss I can safely say that this ranks among the most exhilarating feats of pianism I've heard on disc. If Gibbons's credentials as an Alkan pianist are not sealed in his performance of the first Etude then his reading of the following two Etudes, ''En rhythm molossique'' and ''Scherzo diabolico'', surely confirm him as an Alkan interpreter of exceptional authority. Listening to these commanding and exceedingly sure-footed performances one is left with the feeling that Gibbons has grown with and nurtured these pieces for some time. The following four Etudes make up the Symphony for Solo Piano, and if anything Gibbons is even more impressive in his reading of this striking work. Once again direct comparision with Ringeissen reveals a closer adherence to Alkan's tempo and metronome markings and thus gives the Symphony a much greater sense of impetus and rhythmic drive compared with Ringeissen's more spacious, airy account. With the absence of Ronald Smith's recordings from the catalogue (Unicorn, 7/70 and EMI, 2/78) Gibbons's account becomes the top recommendation here.
Moving on to the Concerto for Solo Piano (Etudes Nos. 8-10) Gibbons faces daunting competition from Marc Andre Hamelin. Technically their readings are pretty well matched; however, I find Hamelin crisper and more classical in approach compared with Gibbons's more wildly romantic reading, which to my mind is close in spirit to John Ogdon's 1970 RCA recording (never released in the UK). The fact that Gibbons's account is contained within a complete recording of the Etudes makes it unfair to give preference to one or the other, though I suspect that Alkan enthusiasts will want both recordings anyway.
More extraordinary feats of virtuosity await the listener in the twelfth Etude (''Le festin d'Esope'') and the Allegro barbaro from the Op. 35 Etudes, but the delightful selection of miscellaneous pieces with which Gibbons fills the remainder of the set shows not only the more introverted side of Alkan's creativity but also allows Gibbons to display a less ostentatious and more directly poetic aspect of his playing. The simple Nocturne in B major, with its Chopinesque heartbeat, is beautifully rendered as are the ''Les soupirs'' and ''En songe'' from the Esquisses, Op. 63 and the Barcarolle Op. 65, No. 6. However, the highlight of these miniatures comes with Gibbons's sensitive and effective delivery of the potently atmospheric ''La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer'' (''Song of the mad woman on the seashore''), surely one of the most curious piano pieces to emerge from the nineteenth century.
All in all, an exceptionally impressive issue that can be highly recommended to both Alkan devotees and newcomers alike. The recorded sound is excellent. More Alkan from this pianist please!'