ALKAN: Concerto for Piano Solo in G-sharp Minor, Op. 39, Nos. 8-10; Comme le vent in A Minor, Op. 39, No. 1; En rhythme molossique in D Minor, Op. 39, No. 2; Scherzo diabolico in G Minor, Op. 39, No. 3 – Vincenzo Maltempo, p. – Piano Classics PCL0061, 69:18 [Distr. By Naxos] (5/27/14) ****:

Vincenzo Maltempo (b. 1985) has his own ideas about virtuosity and its appropriate repertory, and so he embraces the music of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), the hermetic but grandiose composer of daunting exercises for the keyboard, among which his 1857 Etudes dans tous les tons Mineurs remain particularly grueling and complex. Alkan has had important apostles in recordings, including Ronald Smith and Raymond Lewenthal, and now Maltempo, who openly admits Alkan’s idiosyncratic genius.  Alkan’s pieces range from gargantuan to the curious miniature, often conceived in the lurid light of grotesquerie.

The Concerto for Piano Solo will either convince us or thoroughly distress us: its first movement alone (Allegro assai) occupies 72 pages, embracing 1,342 bars of music. Its playing time (29:13) by Maltempo would accommodate a normal span for the whole Liszt Sonata in B Minor! The concept follows that of the Bach Italian Concerto, with big block chords in the manner of an orchestra and elegant roulades and arioso runs that signify the piano solo.  The movement develops three themes, interlocked, that traverse G-sharp Minor, E Major, and E-flat Major. The movement proves highly sectionalized, rather like a Bruckner movement with decisive periods, culminating in a militant Cadenza.

The Adagio movement proffers a descending-motif Romanza in C-sharp Minor. The harmonies often embrace – over pungently defined pedal points or in florid counterpoint – the Moorish or pentatonic clusters that we find in a more subdued form in Saint-Saens. While the movement proceeds in the manner of a ballade, it evolves the main theme in canonically mournful textures. For a brief period, Alkan tosses a tune antiphonally in a way reminiscent of the Second Chopin Scherzo. The point seems to have been to muse on the endurance and sheer athletic stamina of the performer to manipulate tone and effects in some mesmerizing display of Byzantine architecture.

The last movement, marked Allegretto alla barbaresca, requires a trapeze artist of the keyboard, as though the rapid staccati in the first movement for the third finger of each hand were not enough.  The final movement wants to capture – despite its often sounding rhythmically a bit like a Chopin polonaise – the antique sound of Berber stringed instruments, like the rebab or rebec of the Middle Ages. The music simultaneously pirouettes in diverse tonal colors, which add a degree of ungainly elegance to an otherwise purely digital series of miracles. Maltempo coordinates each and every monumental gesture demanded by Alkan on a Yamaha CF III SA Concert Grand Piano (rec. June 2013) with impressive and ardent fervor.

The etude entitled Comme le vent, Prestissmamente, Op. 39, No. 1 wants Maltempo to move his fingers at rocket paces, a whipping wind whose kind of dazzle would appeal to those who had already traversed both Chopin and Liszt etudes. The punishment to the thumb, middle and fourth fingers waxes considerable, Maltempo’s having to hold a melodic line in a welter of flying sixteenths. En rhythme molossique, Risoluto, posits a powerful and expansive octave study in a ternary rhythm that becomes an ostinato tattoo in degrees of percussion. A fierce test of wrist endurance, Ferruccio Busoni championed the piece in Berlin, where it received decidedly cold treatment. The etude entitled Scherzo diabolico, Prestissimo, confirms Alkan’s Gothic sensibility, a penchant he shares with Liszt but realizes here with means exploited by the aforementioned Chopin Second Scherzo, Op. 31, with its insistence on the Neapolitan sixth chord as its connecting tissue. Given the monstrously huge spans of the chords, few pianists could carry this piece off without having to roll the intervals. The chords rise up, chorale-fashion, much like those in Liszt’s Wilde Jagd Etude. But the texture becomes unearthly, marked ppp through the da capo.  In his meandering, tortuous liner notes – which barely concede to the practice of paragraphs – Maltempo notes the effect “as though we were underwater or found our ears inexplicably covered by some mysterious membrane that prevents us from hearing those fortissimi once more. . .”

But never fear: this often shocking and startling music has had our collective ears opened and awakened from the first.  With this CD, Maltmpo completes his survey of the Alkan legacy of etudes.

—Gary Lemco