Alkan Piano Works

Author: 
Michael Stewart

Alkan Piano Works

  • (12) Études dans les tons mineurs, Scherzo diabolico
  • (12) Études dans les tons mineurs, Le festin d'Esope
  • (12) Études dans les tons majeurs
  • (3) Improvisations dans le style brillant
  • (Le) preux (étude de concert)
  • (Le) chemin de fer (étude)
  • (3) Études

Thin and tinny (particularly in the upper region) are the best words to describe the piano sound on Laurent Martin's disc of Alkan piano music for Marco Polo, which is a pity considering that his performances are extremely fine and commendable. As for the pieces themselves, well, let's just say that with the exception of the Trois grandes etudes, Op. 76 and Le chemin de fer, they are not the finest of Alkan's works yet to be plundered and would certainly not provide the best of introductions to this highly individual composer. The Trois improvisarions, Op. 12 are among the earliest of Alkan's piano works to be represented on disc to date, but whilst they certainly reveal many stylistic traits of the Alkan to come, there is little in the way of memorable substance to be found within their pages. Even less memorable, however, is the concert study Le preux (''The valiant knight''), which is perhaps best summed up in the words of Alkan expert Ronald Smith who, in his book Alkan: The Music (Kahn & Avrill: 1987), described it as ''a hefty concert study full of peremptory gestures but undistinguished in content''.
No, the best of this disc is to be found in the remaining works: Le chemin de fer may be a novelty piece (perhaps the first ever musical representation of a railway journey) but as novelty pieces go it's high in entertainment value, as well as being a useful, if incredibly taxing, toccata-study in its own right. Martin swathes through its merciless demands with consummate ease. Greater still are the monumental Trois grandes etudes, Op. 76—respectively for left hand, right hand and hands reunited. Martin's performances (marginally, but disappointingly cut in the final etude) may not have quite the poise, expressive range or even—in the final prestissimo piece in the set—the blistering speed of execution of Ronald Smith on his now deleted mid-price recording (EMI, 11/88), but are nevertheless strongly projected and much to be admired.
Bernard Ringeissen's Alkan disc is a particularly welcome issue in that it brings with it the first complete recording of the neglected and not insubstantial 12 etudes dans les tons majeurs, Op. 35 of 1847. Unlike the Op. 39 minor key studies, which threw up such colossal edifices as the Concerto and Symphony for solo piano, these adopt (with the exception of the programmatic seventh study, ''Fire in the neighbouring village'') a more traditional approach to the genre. Of course, Alkan and the word etude spell technical difficulties of the most fearsome variety, but Ringeissen's formidable technique seems to know no bounds, and challenge after challenge appear to be swallowed up with yet still more in hand—for particularly dazzling examples try Studies Nos. 4, 5 (the famous Allegro barbaro), 6 and 12 and ask yourself why we hear so little of this pianist in this country. Fine performances of ''Le festin d'Esope'' and the ''Scherzo diabolico'' (both from the Op. 39 set of etudes) fill the remainder of this generous disc (78 minutes). The recorded sound is good, if a little close at times in the Op. 35 Etudes.'

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