Alkan: Symphony for solo piano; Salut, cendre du pauvre!; Alleluia; Super flumina Babylonis; Souvenirs: Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique

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COMPOSERS: Alkan
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Symphony for solo piano; Salut, cendre du pauvre!; Alleluia; Super flumina Babylonis; Souvenirs: Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique
PERFORMER: Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67218
Which famous composer died when a bookcase fell on him? Charles-Valentin Alkan, of course. Or did he? The New Grove article on Alkan suggests that the story ‘seems to have no basis of truth’. We also tend to think of him exclusively as the creator of massive sonic structures, formidable in their technical demands. Yet he also wrote many pieces just a few minutes long, and was capable of imitating the sound of a train or a chirping cricket in his music.

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The more of his music that is made available to us, the more he seems a major figure of the 19th century rather than an eccentric sideshow. And Marc-André Hamelin puts us further in his debt with another superbly played disc of Alkan – a follow-up to his breathtaking account of the Grande sonate (Hyperion CDA 20794) – this time presenting the Symphony for solo piano alongside a fascinating collection of other pieces.

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The Symphony is a mere 26 minutes in length, actually part of a grand scheme of 12 studies in all the minor keys. Its big-boned, exorbitantly taxing writing draws appropriately stunning pianism from Hamelin, though no less impressive are the delicately Chopinesque touches he brings to ‘Aime-moi’ of the Souvenirs: Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique and the truly astonishing scene-painting of ‘Le vent’, from the same set: a depiction of wind howling in the tree-tops that, as Liszt recognised, speaks eloquently also of inner turmoil.