The Harmonia Mundi label doesn't pay a lot of lip service to music outside of its core, Baroque and back-centered repertoire, although it has achieved some marvelous things in contemporary music and, very occasionally, the off-the-beaten-path romantic repertoire. Emmanuelle Bertrand Plays Alkan and Liszt belongs to this last category, featuring cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand and pianist Pascal Amoyel in cello and piano works of two composers not at all generally associated with chamber music, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Franz Liszt.
If you'd like to access the full scope of Alkan's quirky style in bite-sized proportions rather than piling into the Concerto for Solo Piano, Les Quartre Ages, and other large-scale concoctions, here's a disc for you. Esquisses (Sketches) contains 49 piano miniatures, each lasting from 43 seconds to a little more than four minutes. Alkan apparently composed these over a 15-year span. He eventually partitioned the collection into four volumes, arranged according to key sequence.
Alkan was counted in Busoni's pantheon of five romantics alongside Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. Brahms and Schumann are the references in the euphoric Grand Duo Concertant - nothing short of a 20 or so minute Sonata in three turbulent movements. This is a work of diving romance and if Alkan had stopped in the style of the first movement then we would have been able to 'place' Alkan. Instead we get a second movement that clamours in bass heavy capering for all the world like a picture of a Black Sabbath. As if to make ‘amends’ the finale is back to the helter-skelter tumble of vivacity we find in the first movement. This euphoria carries over into the Cello Sonata which is in four classically well-tailored movements. Alkan's originality or eccentricity (take your pick) returns for the Adagio which is part sentimental and part affecting. This perhaps offers a parallel with Joseph Holbrooke's chamber works in which sublime ideas and treatment suddenly find themselves up against kitsch music hall ditties. A wild saltarello with grand manner Hungarian gestures from the piano round out the picture.
Alkan's one of music's originals, a relatively neglected composer valued for his highly original, often visionary keyboard works accessible only to the most skilled virtuosos. Marc-André Hamelin certainly fills that bill and almost outdoes himself on this disc, playing with breathtaking virtuosity and imaginative insight. The Symphony for solo piano is just a four-movement work of symphonic scope and color. The Symphony was part of an even bigger work, the Opus 39 Études, whose 12 pieces include Alkan's best music. The three brief pieces that follow have strong attractions, deep spirituality prime among them. The final three pieces from his early Opus 15 set exemplify Alkan the Romantic. Again, Hamelin makes light of their technical difficulties, while shaping them sensitively. Notable are Le vent, where the right-hand runs make you hear the whistling wind and Morte, another powerful funeral march.