Classical: The Compact Collection

ROB COWAN ON THE WEEK'S CD RELEASES

THE PIANIST Raymond Lewenthal was a breed apart. Open the booklet for RCA's newly reissued The Piano Music of Alkan and you see him standing there, a Harry H Corbett look-alike draped in a black cape and posing manfully against a dramatic backdrop of clouds. Thirty-odd years ago the late Mr Lewenthal signalled the Romantic piano revival with a disc devoted to music by the ill-fated Talmud scholar and piano virtuoso Charles- Valentin Alkan (1813-1888). Renewed interest in Alkan's music was perhaps thenceforth inevitable, but few later recordings have ever matched the sheer bravura of Lewenthal's manic selection.

Aesop sets things in motion with a gallery of animals as suggested in 25 dazzling variations, each more outlandish than the last and based on an impish little theme that lodges obstinately in your memory. "Quasi- Faust" is the second movement of Alkan's Grande Sonate and in some respects anticipates Liszt, while the four-movement "Symphony" is - like "Aesop's Feast" - extracted from a massive set of 12 studies in minor keys. The first movement hints at Mendelssohn, the second (a tongue-in-cheek Marche funebre) at Prokofiev, and the whole is wickedly witty in a way that Haydn might have been had he lived 100 years later.

Modern scholarship tells us that Alkan wasn't, in fact, crushed by a falling bookcase (this particular rumour persisted for many years and even the CD booklet perpetuates it), though even stranger notions are suggested in his music. Lewenthal plays at white heat, both for Alkan and in an equally zany set of variations on a theme from Bellini's I Puritani by Liszt, and in works by Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin. The recordings are brittle but impressive.

Another Jewish minor master hailed from Hessen and penned a number of works, including an attractive quartet of symphonies. Friedrich Gernsheim was a friend of Brahms and a teacher of Humperdinck and his four symphonies reflect a style of writing that Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Schubert and Brahms helped cultivate. The Second Symphony in particular is crammed with likeable ideas (the slow movement especially) and all four finales are strong on good tunes, though Gernsheim's musical arguments are somewhat discursive.

Arte Nova's world premiere recordings under the baton of Siegfried Kohler are worth searching out. The Rhineland-Pfalz State Philharmonic plays reasonably well, the sound is consistently pleasing and the low price surely makes the set irresistible - certainly for devotees of Romantic orchestral music.

Paradoxically, the stylistic leap forwards from Gernsheim's heart-felt meandering to the terse world of Beethoven's "Serioso" Quartet crosses a veritable chasm, especially with the Hagen Quartet on hand to heighten the drama. I have never heard a more ferocious account of the opening Allegro con brio, tensed to the point of self-combusting though with an almost cruel clarity evident in every department.

Schubert's last quartet shivers like the displaced lover in his last song cycle, with Brucknerian tremolandos and savage dissonances that invade the otherwise lyrical Andante. The Scherzo is abrasive, the finale a half- brother to the parallel movement in the "Great" C major Symphony. There's nothing in the repertory that is remotely like it, not even late Beethoven - and the Hagens work hard at maximising the contrasts between charm and chill.

Alkan/Lewenthal

RCA Red Seal 09026 63310 2

Gernsheim/Kohler

Arte Nova 74321 63635 2 (2 discs)

Beethoven, Schubert/Hagen Quartet

Deutsche Grammophon 457 615-2

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