CD - ALKAN Recital by Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA66794

Grande Sonate 'Les Quatre Ages' op.33

Sonatine op. 61

Barcarolle op. 65 no. 6

Le Festin d'Esope (Study op. 39 no. 12)

Selected comparisons:

Grande Sonate: Ronald Smith (1973)

Sonatine: Raymond Lewenthal (1971), Bernard Ringeissen (1976)

Festin d'Esope: Ronald Smith (1977)

Marc-André Hamelin opens this studio recital with Alkan's early masterpiece in sonata form. Publication of this sonata in 1848 couldn't have been worse timed from Alkan's point of view. The revolution of 1848 had harmed the musical scene in Paris to the extent that the sonata received no public performance, nor even a review in the musical press. Ronald Smith's 1973 recording was the first to bring the composer's whole conception before the public.

The extra-musical inspiration for each of the four movements of this piece (headed respectively "20 Years. Very Fast", "30 Years, Quasi Faust", "40 years, a Happy Family. Slow., "50 years, Prometheus Bound. Extremely Slow") lies in a depiction of a man in different stages of development.

For a man who wrote this sonata at the age of 35, Alkan had a very pessimistic view of old age, with our 50 year-old man seemingly condemned to a slow torturous living death. At the time of writing he was about to suffer a major disappointment which was to set a course for the composer towards obscurity, isolation and prolonged old age, which makes the sonata seem uncomfortably prophetic.

Marc-André Hamelin's performance makes the music accessible to a wider public, with a very accurate, smooth and controlled performance. The first movement is played, as marked, very fast (5'48" to Smith's 6'31") with plenty of bounce and spirit. If anything, it is a bit too smooth. Where Smith pays more heed to the composer's accent-marks, Hamelin scores over Smith with his ultra-controlled finger-technique.

The second movement, first recorded by Lewenthal in his legendary 1965 RCA disc, requires relentless power, stamina and a very clear head. After a satanic start and a Herculean build-up, Alkan embarks upon a fugal section with more parts than a pianist has fingers, if you include octave doublings! Somehow, both Smith and Hamelin find a way to play this passage whose complexity nevertheless leaves the listener somewhat puzzled, before unleashing a triumphal exorcism of all things devilish in preparation for the contentment of family life.

Once again Hamelin's playing in the third movement is smooth and sophisticated, and paints a cosy picture of domestic harmony combined with dutiful prayer. Smith's children are quickly brought to heel by the 10 chimes of the family clock, whereas Hamelin's don't seem to notice at all.

The fourth movement provides the biggest contrast between the two pianists. Smith takes nearly 12 minutes to negotiate the 5 pages, to Hamelin's 9' 10". How slow should 'extremely slow' be? Smith takes his cue from Alkan's preface which quotes from Aeschylus's tragic poem "Prometheus Bound". For Alkan, life at 50 is an eternal torment where time passes exceedingly and excruciatingly slowly. Hamelin takes a more moderate view of this movement which, although easier on the conscience, perhaps makes Alkan's numbing and desperate suffering a mite too comfortable. This new recording provides a welcome addition to the Alkan discography, whilst reminding us just how remarkable a recording the 1973 Ronald Smith is.

Any thoughts that Marc-André Hamelin might be trying to make Alkan sound just too smooth and sophisticated are immediately dispelled by the opening bars of the Sonatine. Hamelin's unbelievable virtuosity in the final movement portrays a weird, nightmarish chase up blind alleys, twisting and turning through barren hostile landscapes, and over vertiginous cliffs before dropping into a hellish bubbling cauldron.

On the face of it, Alkan's piano writing could be an early Beethoven sonata, but for its strange harmonic progressions, and sudden modulations. Although Lewenthal is actually quicker, Hamelin's fantastic finger technique sets his playing apart from both Lewenthal's and Ringeissen's. Lewenthal's struggle to keep to his over-optimistic tempo leads to a loss of momentum in places, while Hamelin manages to plough forward relentlessly. Ringeissen takes a more conservative approach, and as a result fails to capture the wild abandon that permeates this piece. Hamelin makes a strong case for regarding the Sonatine as the most economical and original work in sonata form since Beethoven.

Turning to the 'fillers', Hamelin takes a leisurely and relaxed view of the Barcarolle, a piece he frequently plays as an encore. As with much of Alkan's music, what appears simple and straightforward soon takes an original and unpredicted turn by way of Ravel-like dissonances.

To round off this excellent disk, Hamelin turns in a performance of Festin d'Esope that will send shivers down any spine. Alkan warns the pianist against any relaxation of pace, whilst pouring increasingly frenetic torrents of notes and chords onto the keys. Incredibly, Hamelin is equal to this challenge and produces a performance which even eclipses Ronald Smith's astoundingly virtuoso 1977 performance.

Alkan-lovers won't need to be told to buy this disk, nor will anyone who has heard Marc-André Hamelin's masterly and confident playing. For the rest, if you want to hear two of the most original and brilliant pieces in sonata form to come out of the 19th century played by a pianist whose time has come, run don't walk to your record store.