Alkan: 48 Esquisses, Op. 63

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: 48 Esquisses, Op. 63
PERFORMER: Steven Osborne (piano)
This disc is a big boost for the Alkan discography. Last July I reviewed Laurent Martin’s Naxos disc of the Esquisses. This Hyperion issue is notably superior in terms of recording quality (as is, indeed, the quality of the instrument Osborne plays); but not for these reasons alone does it merit so warm a welcome. The fascinating originality and individuality of Alkan’s Op. 63 – its 48 miniatures plus postlude covering a range of invention and mood from ‘antique’ to forward-looking, from serene to darkly disturbed – could be appreciated in the Naxos version in spite of its tinny sound and its pianist’s tendency toward one-dimensional performance style.


But Osborne’s interpretations, wide in varieties of touch (sometimes magically superfine), in dramatic range, in contrasts of rhetorical declamation, amount to a revelation. While Alkan’s sketchbook may not encompass the full flights of bravura evidenced in his larger pianistic ventures, it displays some of his most startling explorations – for instance No. 45, ‘Les diablotins’, with its biting march rhythm, ferocious interjections and tone of bizarre mockery – alongside paragraphs of extreme simplicity, gentleness and sobriety; and the pianist embraces Alkan’s extremes with sovereign technical control.


In both the essay by Osborne himself and the musical commentary by Misha Donat – Hyperion’s booklet material continues to set an enviably high standard – comparisons with Berlioz (ten years Alkan’s senior) are vivid and thought-provoking. At moments I found myself fantasising about an even greater degree of Berliozian diablérie in the delivery, yet I would not willingly relinquish for it the overall command of the Esquisses that Osborne so compellingly demonstrates. Max Loppert