WORKS: Grande Sonate (Les quatre âges), Op. 33; Sonatine; Barcarolle, Op. 65/6; Le festin d’Esope, Op. 39/12
PERFORMER: Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 66794 DDD
Alkan was one of the most reclusive figures in the history of music. On his death in 1888 one of his obituarists wrote, ‘It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence.’ But throughout his life he composed prolifically, mostly (like his adored Chopin) for the piano, and his music was studied assiduously by Debussy and Ravel. The bulk of it, technically and interpretatively, is beyond the reach of any but the most prodigiously gifted virtuoso. The awesome Études of Op. 39 are all for solo piano, but four of them form a so-called symphony and another three a concerto whose first movement alone takes roughly half an hour to play. The titles of some of the shorter pieces are as evocative as Debussy (La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer, for instance).
It’s hard to choose between these two releases. The music compels attention, the virtuosity is mind-boggling, the sound is clear – and the booklet notes are full and informative. Gibbons’s two-CD set includes all the Op. 39 Études; Hamelin’s the Grande Sonate, which is a highpoint in Romantic piano music. If I had to choose one of these for my desert island, I’d have to take them both. Wadham Sutton