ALKAN: Grande Sonate “Les quatre ages”; Symphonie pour piano solo, Op. 39; Trois grandes etudes pour les main separees et reunites, Op. 76 – Vincenzo Maltempo, piano – Piano Classics PC10038, 75:22 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Italian piano virtuoso Vincenzo Maltempo (b. 1985) joins a small contingent of admirers and acolytes of the music of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), such as John Ogden, Raymond Lewenthal, and Ronald Smith, who find in Alkan’s often daunting, monolithic canvases a message that redeems their otherwise thick textures and abstruse, wandering harmonies. Maltempo performs (in Rome, 2011) on a Piano Gran Coda Yamaha CFIII engineered in glorious sound by Giovanni Caruso.
Alkan’s 1847 Grande Sonate is in four movements, whose titles refer to the subtitles given to each movement, portraying a man at the ages of 20, 30, 40, and 50. Commentators have found in Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy a model for the four-part division, with its concurrent slowing down of each of the sections into “old age.” The hectically bravura first movement takes the form of a Scherzo in B Minor, likely homage to Chopin’s Op. 20. When the F-sharp intrudes before the “love“ theme in B Major, the effect reminds me of a Beethoven bagatelle. Alkan designates his Thirty Years “Quasi Faust,” an intentionally theatrical, grandiose movement whose operatic sweep could easily have influenced Liszt’s B Minor Sonata. If the Faust drama plays out, it does so with the usual personages of Faust, Marguerite, and Mephisto, here set as a moving pastiche of evolving motifs and ferocious technical demands on Maltempo. The “Quasi Faust” culminates in an intricate, Herculean fugue derived from Bach’s E Major (from WTC II) and the first four notes of the last movement from Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Because of Alkan’s idiosyncratic use of accidentals, the fugue proceeds to E-sharp Major (rather than F), which we may suppose indicates a spiritually transcendent realm, like the Chorus mysticus in Eine Faust-Symphonie.
Alkan calls his Forty Years “Un heureux menage,” an extended Lento in G Major that might provide the structural basis of the Richard Strauss Domestic Symphony. The music literally ripples in conjugal bliss, interrupted only by three enfants who merely add to the song of the family. At ten strokes of the clock the peaceful day ends in prayer. The last movement proves most disturbing, almost a premonition of the last of Rachmaninov’s The Bells sequence. Black Death triumphs in this Fifty Years, subtitled “Promethee enchaine.” The Final age of Man confronts the Styx, Erebus; and the music takes its cue from the sketches of Beethoven’s projected Tenth Symphony and a fragment of the Eroica Funeral March (again, like Richard Strauss, in his Metamorphosen). For Alkan, the progression invokes a universal entropy, The dirge moves to G-sharp Major, a hellfire that emits no light. The dynamics move from the softest ppp to a sudden, resounding one-note forte that increases the chiaroscuro tenfold. The slow jaws of Time work themselves round every hope, the dissolution of final as the last waxy goo that remained of Poe’s M. Valdemar.
Alkan’s Symphonie pour piano solo (1857) is based on “the dozen etudes on all the minor tones” but of these the four: Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 7. Generally dark in hue, the work opens with an Allegro in C Minor in sonata form. The sweeping emotions often suggest Chopin and Liszt, although Alkan’s use of “progressive tonality” (from C Minor to E-flat Minor) forecasts developments in Sibelius, Nielsen, and Mahler. Maltempo has all of Alkan’s keyboard demands comfortable under his fingers, so the alternate rages and wistful zephyrs flow without pause despite their sudden and mercurial shifts of temperament. The Marche funebre, in fact, does offer a dotted tune that splices aspects of Beethoven’s Eroica funeral march and Mahler together. Marked Andantino, it echoes the designation in Beethoven’s A Minor second movement for the Seventh Symphony. Urging a degree of stoicism to the dirge, Alkan asks for con dolore contenuto in the Trio section, “with contained sadness.” The tempo may remind some listeners of the Andante movement in Beethoven’s Op. 28 “Pastoral” Sonata.
What Alkan calls a Menuet assumes a rough and violent course, yet its stormy emotions remain within a ternary structure. Thunderous bass chords interject themselves in to the syncopated mix, then the texture lightens into something more dance like in character. The Trio casts forth a gauzy charm, quite beguiling and certainly evocative of a musette.
Raymond Lewenthal spoke of the dark, fuming last movement Finale (Presto) as a “ride into Hell,” a contrapuntal etude that testifies to the wrists’ sustaining power, a prowess Alkan well possessed, since he could perform his works himself. If the piece resembles Liszt’s Grand Galop chromatique, the semblance may not be all coincidence.
Despite the late opus number, the third of the Trois grandes etudes, Op. 76 is an early work, a test in minor keys of the two hands to play in perpetual motion while effecting colors indicative each hand separately. We think of the “wind on the grave” from Chopin’s finale to his B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35, but this terror also permits a cantabile theme in major to emerge. Somehow, pianist Maltempo achieves the “right tempo” and synchronizes the incredible runs and glissandi into an illusion of unity, what Blake would call “fearful symmetry.”
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