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Record Reviews: Alkan: Grande Sonate; Sonatine; Le Festin d'Esope Marc-Andre Hamelin (piano) (Hyperion CDA 66794)

double play
"The Berlioz of the keyboard"? Who was it said that? A tad generous, perhaps, but you get the picture. Then there's the image of the reclusive Alkan crushed by his own bookcase while reaching for a volume of Hebrew verse (yes, that really is how he died). Absurd, but dramatic, Gothic even. Again, no more, no less than you would expect from the music.

The Grande Sonate: Les quatre ages (what happened to the other three?) fits the bill admirably: psychotic Liszt, traumatised Chopin, 19th-century pianism with a death wish, pushing beyond the age of reason into the age of "what if?". Alkan could lay down more notes, at faster speeds and in more impossible permutations, than you could ever imagine. This Grande Sonate hurries slowly - from the first flush of youth, the age of 20-something (which might just be exhilarating if it weren't so hot and bothered), to the acknowledgement of failure at 50. The end, when it comes here, is horribly abrupt - as if Alkan has been waiting for it, welcoming it.

His pessimism makes him interesting. It's those demonic volte-faces, those wilful displacements, those shadowy recesses in the midst of so many 19th-century conventions. Consider the labyrinthine eight-part fugue, the sinister endgame of his turbulent precis of the Faust legend (30-something): can even Alkan's amazing fingers have illuminated each phantom voice as Marc-Andre Hamelin does here? It's the high definition of his playing, the dizzying articulation of the pyrotechnics (try the whirring moto perpetuo of the Sonatine's Scherzo for size), his ability to shape, colour, turn phrases on a sixpence.

It all comes together in Le Festin d'Esope, where the only thing more ludicrous than the theme itself is the pianistic gymnastics it's subjected to. Aspiring pianists will blanch, or dream on. The watery chromaticism of the little Barcarolle, Op 65 (perhaps the single most durable creation on this disc), rejoices in the kind of touch you think you've imagined, not actually heard.

This is not music I would choose to return to on a regular basis, but the pianism should take your breath away at least once.


The musical quiz-books will have to be revised. It turns out that Charles- Valentin Alkan (ne Morhange) probably wasn't killed by that collapsing library shelf after all. A pity - not for Alkan maybe - but because, like all good myths, it had a distinct ring of truth. Brilliant though he was as both pianist and composer, this French-Jewish contemporary of Chopin was also reclusive and quirky - the kind of man who might well die unheard in a deluge of books.

In this case, the music often seems to mirror the biography. Alkan's piano writing is astonishing in its fecundity and groundbreaking originality, and yet it's expressively opaque. The style may sometimes recall Chopin or other pioneer romantics (it was Schumann who compared him to Berlioz), but it's oddly un-self-revealing, even when it invites our sympathy - as in the bleak "Prometheus Bound" finale of the Grande Sonate.

Still, I've never heard any Alkan work played with such breathtaking assurance. Marc-Andre Hamelin is obviously a superb technician. There are passages where one would swear that two pianists were playing, not just one frail human being with only two hands. And there's much more than technical skill on display. Hamelin is a fine stylist: the energy is never crude; the details are finely shaped, the textures balanced so that leading voices stand out clearly while reacting subtly to accompanying strands - the solo pianist as chamber musician. He's equally at home in the formalised world of the Sonatine and the grim humour of Le Festin d'Esope - a vivid response to a strangely distasteful little fable.

The whole disc is an outstanding achievement - the recordings give a vivid but natural sound-picture, intimate without being too close to the piano. There's no better introduction in the current record catalogue to this intriguing, paradoxical composer.